Deep inside Memorial Tunnel, which once carried West Virginia Turnpike traffic through the mountain separating Paint Creek from Cabin Creek, men in bright orange hazmat suits decontaminated a clandestine lab in which traces of the biotoxin ricin were found.
"It's one of the most toxic proteins on Earth," said 1st Sgt. Brian Burns of the West Virginia National Guard's 35th Civil Support Team. "A couple of grains of it entering your system can be lethal."
Burns and other members of the 35th CST spent Monday working a training scenario in which West Virginia State Police who are serving a warrant at a home smell chemicals, find a hidden lab, and call in the specially trained National Guard unit to analyze and stabilize a chemical threat.
The clandestine lab was equipped with a variety of high-tech and low-tech hardware, laptops, owners' manuals printed in foreign languages and other items for CST members to analyze in an effort to determine the identity of the scenario's bio-terrorists.
Among those observing the training exercise as it unfolded were U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who met with National Guard officials at the tunnel to celebrate recent legislation that gave the chief of the National Guard Bureau a post on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Here, we've helped other units learn how to take and digitize fingerprints from contaminated laboratory equipment, and then digitize them and send them out by radio signal for analysis," without waiting for the gear to be decontaminated, said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer.
The bogus laboratory is part of the Center for National Response's Memorial Tunnel Training Complex, designed and developed by the West Virginia National Guard to provide training for military personnel and first responders from around the world.
Among 10 training scenarios found within the mile-long tunnel is a highway hazardous material spill area, which involves dozens of wrecked vehicles and remote burners that emit varying levels of open flame and smoke.
"We had one training exercise here for first responders that involved a 50-vehicle pileup that included buses and tractor-trailers," said Hoyer. "We have an arrangement with a local salvage yard to supply us with vehicles."
The traffic section of the tunnel has also been used to train Marines how to spot car bombs on a variety of vehicles, Hoyer told members of the state's congressional delegation.
"The only subway system in the state of West Virginia is here," Hoyer said, as he approached a mockup subway platform, equipped with a diner, Broadway theatrical posters, turnstiles, and two subway cars that were once part of Boston's Green Line. "We'll soon be getting four new cars that are coming in from New Jersey."
Hoyer said a newly installed omni-directional camera system allows for training exercises to be more thoroughly critiqued, and lets trainees in distant locations make use of scenarios staged in the tunnel.
First responders from Chicago remotely viewed a mass transit drill staged in the tunnel from their operations center in Chicago. During that exercise, the first responders made decisions about which hospitals they should be sending victims.
"We've had first responders from New York City tell us what we have here is as realistic as what they encountered on 9/11," Hoyer said.
A new urban tactical range featuring a variety of storefront shops with doors that can be mechanically breached allows police and military personnel to train for possibilities such as hostage release and room-to-room combat, using non-lethal, paintball-tipped munitions.
"SWAT teams told us they needed a place to do tactical training in [hazmat] suits, so we came up with this," said Hoyer. "It's an example of how customer feedback drives new developments."
The terrain of Afghanistan prompted the development of an artificial cave, which includes several rooms, some of them containing ammo boxes, rocket propelled grenades, and other arms and munitions.
"We started out with a cave made of Paint Creek rocks, but we ended up sending some guys to Disney, where they learned how to make caves with a foam machine and wire," Hoyer said. "We've trained folks here since the first combat units went into Afghanistan. ... I don't know that we can put a number on lives saved, but we've helped save some. And here we can do training in a cost-effective, timely manner."
Since the West Virginia National Guard took over the tunnel in 1998, 160,000 military personnel and first responders from across the world have trained in the former Turnpike tunnel.
"The Center for National Response and its staff have placed West Virginia on the very top of the list for cutting-edge homeland security preparation," said Rockefeller. "And it's been done at a savings that's pretty impressive." The total National Guard force of 464,900 people accounts for just 6 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget, he said.
Legislation passed late last year giving the National Guard a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff "was the most bipartisan thing that we've had since I've been in the Senate," said Manchin. When paring the national defense budget, instead of eliminating National Guard units, the Pentagon should take a closer look at the money its spends on private contractors.
"More than half of the people on the Department of Defense payroll are civilians," Manchin said. "In Afghanistan, we have 150,000 private contractors and 90,000 troops."
Since unguarded, unfortified "soft" targets are now considered the most likely scenes for terrorist attacks in America, the training that happens at the Memorial Tunnel is especially timely and important, Rahall said. "What you're doing here must be the best-kept secret in the nation," he said.
Hoyer thanked members of West Virginia's congressional delegation for their solid support over the years. "No other state gets the kind of support we get in West Virginia," he said.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.