NIH sued by Boston biolab foes

Group claims agency violated federal law in choosing densely populated site for new biocontainment facility

By | May 19, 2006

An activist legal group filed suit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Thursday (May 18), claiming the agency's decision to approve building a high-security biocontainment lab in a densely populated, largely minority community around Boston's South End violates federal law. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston by the Conservation Law Foundation on behalf of five black and Puerto Rican residents, claims NIH broke the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by not conducting a thorough environmental review of the site, not "taking a comprehensive, objective look at the environmental risks" to nearby residents, and not considering alternative sites. The suit claims the neighborhood meets the federal definition of an "environmental justice community," one where minority residents are overburdened by environmental hazards. It asks the court to stop all federal funding of the biolab. The biolab, called the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, has been controversial since September 2003, when the NIH's National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease chose Boston over other competing cities. The $178 million lab, consisting of biosafety levels (BSL) 2, 3, and 4, would be one of only a dozen labs in the country authorized to conduct research on incurable fatal diseases such as Ebola virus. In April 2004, 146 Massachusetts university professors sent a letter to Boston's mayor and BU's trustees, saying that the risk of human error or terrorist attacks was too great to accept. However, in February, NIH awarded Boston University (BU) $128 million to build the lab. Preliminary site work began last month, according to a BU spokeswoman, but no excavation has taken place and nothing has been built. Eloise Lawrence, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation and lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, told The Scientist residents were scared to live near a facility where samples of fatal, non-curable diseases were transported into and out of the lab by commercial carriers driving through local streets. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did BU's spokeswoman. Yesterday, lab director Mark Klempner, BU medical center's associate provost, said in a statement that NIH's environmental assessment was totally above board. "The approval process for the laboratory was rigorous and thorough and Boston University Medical Center complied fully with all federal, state and local processes and procedures." Links within this article "Activists sue NIH, claim BU biolab funding illegal," Conservation Law Foundation, May 18, 2006. J.D. Miller, "NIH OKs embattled Boston biolab," The Scientist, February 3, 2006. Conservation Law Foundation National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 "Stop the Bioterrorism Lab," Alternatives in Community and Environment. J.D. Miller, "Sparks fly on Boston lab plan," The Scientist, May 5, 2004.

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