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Biosphere Project Air Seals Broken : Environment: Two former inhabitants are suspected of opening doors to contaminate the ecology experiment. One says she acted for safety reasons, not sabotage.

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The air locks of Biosphere 2, a controversial ecology experiment 35 miles outside Tucson, were thrown open Monday in what a spokesman called an attempt to sabotage the $150-million project by contaminating it with fresh air.

Pinal County sheriff’s officials said Monday they were looking for two members of the previous crew who spent two years inside Biosphere 2. They are suspected of opening the doors, breaking the seals and smashing half a dozen oxygen valves before dawn Monday. This emptied the mammoth artificial lungs that equalize air pressure within the 3.15-acre enclosed complex.

One of those two, marine biologist Abigail Alling, said in an interview Monday that she “flushed” the Biosphere air for safety purposes, but added, “I did not sabotage the experiment.” Alling spoke by phone from an undisclosed location in Arizona. Though Alling claimed that the project was “terminated,” other officials said it is continuing.

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Seven researchers from five countries are still living inside the Biosphere, normally sealed from the outside world, in an attempt to operate a self-sustaining environment as a possible prototype for space colonization. Air, water and waste are recycled.

Chris Helms, a project spokesman, denied that the experiment was over, and John B. Corliss, the project’s science director, said the incident would have little impact on the research under way when the dome was breached. About 20 outside scientists are involved in various aspects of the project, from rain forest ecology to coral reef studies.

“The Biospherians were enthusiastic about continuing,” Corliss said. “That’s the present plan.”

“We don’t know how much air was exchanged, but it is a significant exchange,” Corliss said. But he added, “From my point of view, the effect on the ongoing research was minimal, since it can be measured.”

The incident came just three days after Texas billionaire Edward P. Bass, the financier behind the project, took court action to oust the management team that conceived and built the sprawling, high-tech greenhouse as a microcosm of Earth.

Alling, who spent two years as a crew member inside the dome, tending its tiny self-contained ocean, said after the attack Monday, “The Biosphere experiment was terminated this morning out of concern for the safety of the Biospherians and the system.

“It is categorically not sabotage,” she said. “I flushed the Biosphere air to be sure that the safety of Biospherians and the system would not be in jeopardy during this trial period.”

Alling and Mark Van Thillo, who ran most of the life-support equipment, were wanted by local police for questioning in connection with the early morning incident.

Belia Fessenden, a spokeswoman for the Pinal County sheriff’s office, said that someone who identified herself as Alling called the Biosphere around 4 a.m. and claimed responsibility for damaging the equipment.

“If in fact these people did commit trespass and criminal damage, they will face charges of violating a federal court order that was issued late last week,” Fessenden said. “They’ll be turned over to the U.S. marshal’s office for violating a federal court order. And we will charge them ourselves with trespass and criminal damages.”


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