Boston biolab plan will be reassessed

Boston University and the NIH have agreed to reassess the environmental risks of their high-security anti-terrorism lab

By | November 2, 2006

Boston University (BU) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have agreed to conduct a second, much broader environmental impact assessment for their BSL-4 anti-terrorism biolab, which has been under construction since March in Roxbury, a poor, densely populated part of Boston's South End. Last February, the NIH gave its final approval for the university to build the seven-story, $178 million National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory. In May, community residents sued to try to force the agency to stop funding the lab, which is intended for BSL-4 research on incurable fatal diseases like plague and Ebola virus. The suit was the culmination of three years of sustained community opposition to the lab. In an October 20 order, Federal District Judge Patti Saris deferred granting the plaintiffs' request to make the NIH temporarily cut off funding, but announced that the NIH and BU had agreed to conduct a comprehensive environmental reassessment to see whether a less-populated site might be preferable and to determine what would happen if a highly contagious fatal disease escaped from the lab. A BU spokesperson told The Scientist that the university expects the reassessment to take four to six months. Once it is complete, Saris will rule on the temporary injunction motion. In her order, Saris reasoned that allowing construction to continue was acceptable because even if the reassessment determines that the building should not be used for BSL-4 research, the lab could potentially be used for lower-security work. An NIH spokesperson told The Scientist that the agency "still anticipates that the Boston University NBL will contain BSL-4 laboratories." It is unclear how willingly the NIH and BU entered into the agreement to conduct the reassessment. This is the second time a reassessment has appeared to be on the horizon: in August, a Massachusetts state judge ordered BU to perform one, in part because the original assessment included only anthrax and left out all incurable fatal diseases. BU appealed that ruling, and no final judgment has been issued. BU Medical Center spokesperson Ellen Berlin told The Scientist that the new offer to conduct a reassessment was voluntary. Laura Maslow-Armand, co-counsel for the community activists, said she believes BU agreed in order "to erase some of the impression of bad faith that clouded their defense in the state case" and to avoid the possibility that Saris might grant the temporary injunction. Saris' order also announced that the NIH and BU intend to "improve community input and involvement" by developing a community-relations plan. As the first part of that effort, a community meeting was held on October 23. At the meeting, 50 to 60 community members assailed NIH representatives for giving inadequate notice of the meeting and providing too few answers to their questions about the lab's safety. John Dudley Miller Links within this article: J.D. Miller, "NIH OKs embattled Boston biolab," The Scientist, February 3, 2006 J.D. Miller, "NIH sued by Boston biolab foes," The Scientist, May 19, 2006 J.D. Miller, "Sparks fly on Boston lab plan," The Scientist, May 5, 2004. Patti Saris>

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