Biological Weapons: Bargaining With the Devil - Page 3

The neighborhood, in which the bioweapons laboratory was slated for siting, was comprised of very poor and predominantly minority populations living in public and subsidized housing, with the children attending nearby public schools. Many used the Medical Center for health services, thus, their access would be jeopardized by a biodefense laboratory-related transport accident, fire, release of toxic organism, or terrorist act. Within a few blocks of the laboratory site are three of the largest shelters in Boston for the hungry and homeless. A fire, release of an insect vector, or other emergency at the laboratory would put the most vulnerable residents at disproportionate risk. Neither the NIH nor BU Medical Center took a hard-eyed look at salient local emergency preparedness considerations. A fire or other emergency at the laboratory would paralyze traffic in the area, render the city's emergency evacuation plan useless and trap the most vulnerable of the city's people.
Inexplicably, the density of the surrounding neighborhood was not factored into the potential impacts of a high-risk laboratory, especially given this laboratory would be located in a much more densely populated area than any other BSL-4 lab in the country. Hamilton County, Montana, the location of the Bitterroot biodefense laboratory, has a population of 15 per square mile, whereas Suffolk County, where the BU Medical Center laboratory would be sited, has a population density of 11,788 people per square mile. The county population density of the area surrounding the proposed BU laboratory is four times that of the Centers for Disease Control Atlanta facility; ten times that of the San Antonio, Texas, facility; almost 20 times that of the Galveston, Texas, facility; and about 40 times that of Fort Detrick, Maryland, facility. One can only conclude that NIH and BU see the local predominantly low-income and minority community as a convenient "sacrifice zone" for a high-risk research facility that would otherwise be rejected by more affluent and politically connected communities that have the power, money and connections to keep high-risk facilities - whether prisons or bioweapons labs - out of their backyards.
Legal Action
NIH and BU's private gentlemen's agreement to site this biodefense laboratory in the BU medical center has been brilliantly challenged by community activists on both state and federal law grounds, with notable legal support from nonprofit and private law firms. At both the state and federal levels, the activist resident plaintiffs charged that the Environmental Impact Reports prepared by BU and the NIH were insufficient because they: 1) did not provide an adequate "worst-case" scenario of a biodefense laboratory accident and 2) did not conduct a comparison of a biodefense laboratory accident in less dense suburban and rural locations. The citizen lawsuit against NIH also charged the agency with failure to conduct an environmental review of the entire national biodefense laboratory program, before awarding research grants, specifically to identify and address disproportionate impacts on minority and low-income communities, as prescribed in President Clinton's Executive Order 12898.
What followed was a succession of disingenuous risk assessment reports designed by consultants to give BU and NIH the results they wanted - low to almost no risk to the local communities from lab spill and infected worker scenarios. The pathogens chosen for their risk scenarios were either non-contagious or merely mildly contagious, with no more than one lab worker infected, or they involved risks to farm animals, which are non-existent in Boston's inner city. Even when the highly contagious lethal virus which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was analyzed after the risk assessors were sent back to work, they again used small risk scenarios and, naturally, found miniscule risk of community infection. They avoided a damning SARS scenario, such as: a lab researcher unknowingly infected with SARS has lunch with and infects colleagues, most of whom take public transportation home at rush hour after work, a few of whom go to evening meetings and one of whom leaves on a crowded 747 from Logan Airport for a conference in New York City. All cough in their respective work, public and home environments. With this scenario in mind, scientist Lynn Klotz, who worked with other scientists and community activists to propose an alternative vision for the BU lab, wrote recently:
An escape of a highly contagious pathogen from a lab in a city is more likely to seed an epidemic ... What if a lab researcher is infected with a highly contagious deadly disease that is transmitted by casual contact, a victim's cough or from contaminated surfaces? Besides SARS, the 1918 pandemic flu also comes to mind. The BU [BSL4] Laboratory likely will research SARS and the 1918 pandemic flu. ... Research on deadly, highly contagious pathogens should be conducted in BSL4 laboratories in isolated locations ... never in populated areas ...
The community-driven legal action has had positive, yet limited, effect in its efforts to promote environmental justice. For seven years, the courts have not permitted BU to open the BSL-4 laboratory while the sham environmental impact assessments continue to be reworked for a third time. However, the courts did approve the construction of the building that was to house the biodefense laboratory; it stands tall, arrogant, empty, yet entitled, as if expecting to outlast the critics.
At the same time, the protracted state and federal lawsuits have given the undaunted community the opportunity to keep the issue of environmental injustice in the media and the public eye, functioning like a hair shirt for BU. Their resistance recently included proposing creative alternatives to bioweapon research, while biding time for the next reworked risk assessment. The activists and scientist partners designed an alternative vision for the BU laboratory, one that proposes a focus on developing new technologies, preventatives and cures for the infectious diseases of substantial public health concern. The World Health Organization has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest threats to human health. The coalition's alternative vision for infectious disease research in the BU BSL-4 advocates investing the NIH funding in countermeasures for infectious bacteria where many strains are now resistant to multiple antibiotics.
In July 2011, emails began circulating from the Safety Net coalition organizers and legal team to ready for the public review comment period for risk assessment No. 3 of the impact of the bioweapons laboratory on the community, which may begin in fall 2011. Both the federal and state governments will conduct public review and comment processes on the risk study. This singular, remarkably cohesive and long-lived environmental justice struggle against a national bioweapons laboratory fires up again. Less long lived is the Principal Investigator and Director of the BU Biodefense Laboratory, Dr. Mark Klempner, who resigned as director effective September 1, 2011. On August 12, 2011, BU announced that they are deferring their plans to operate the highest-risk level research in the still empty laboratory building and are, instead, seeking a waiver from the state of Massachusetts to begin lower-risk research. Another gain for the community, whose heat has singed the biodefense Goliath.
Additional Resources on the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
"Trust But Verify? Not This Time: For Biological Security, Transparency Is Best Policy"
The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) Web Site
Perspective on and analysis of the BTWC
Information on NGO action to improve the BTWC, see the Biological Weapons Prevention Project
"Biodefense Research and Development Policy in 2009: A Citizen Perspective"
1. Guillemin, Jeanne, (2005) "Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism," New York: Columbia University Press.
2. Boyle, Francis, (2005) "Biowarfare and Terrorism," Atlanta, Georgia: Clarity Press, Inc.
3. Michael Carroll's rigorous investigation, "Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory," uncovered careless laboratory procedures with some of the deadliest of animal diseases, OSHA and EPA violations, worker infections and lax federal oversight. He lays out the facts and circumstantial evidence that suggest a connection between the USDA germ warfare research facility and the initial outbreaks of Lyme disease in 1975 and West Nile Virus in 1999.
4. Boudewijn de Jonge, "Institutional governance and reform," University of Amsterdam, January 2006.
5. Ibid.
6. H. Patricia Hynes, Klare Allen and Eloise Lawrence, "The Boston University Biolab: A Case of Environmental Injustice." Proceedings of The State of Environmental Justice in America 2007 Conference, Howard University Law School, March 29-31, 2007.

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