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Biodefense labs make bad neighbors, residents say

A series of state and federal lawsuits have blocked the opening of a lab complex in Boston, with neighbors nervous that toxins could get out. It's the first setback for such labs since Sept. 11.

May 17, 2009|Bob Drogin

The University of Texas Medical Branch, for example, built a $174-million facility similar in size and mission to the Boston lab. It opened last fall in Galveston, just weeks after Hurricane Ike had ravaged the barrier island. The lab suffered no apparent damage.

"I have trouble understanding why they put a dangerous facility in such a vulnerable place," said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer in Houston. "I don't know that it's unsafe. But I do think it's unwise."

Officials at the National Institutes of Health, which provided most of the money to construct the Boston and Galveston labs, say they were designed to withstand hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Not everyone is convinced. A group of Texas research facilities sued in federal court last month to block the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from building a $523-million high-containment lab in Manhattan, Kan. A tornado struck the town last year.

Citing the danger, the lawsuit seeks to move the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to San Antonio. At stake are hundreds of jobs, as well as research on hoof-and-mouth disease and other threats to crops and animals.

In Boston, a black steel fence surrounds the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, as the complex is called. No sign yet identifies the site to pedestrians.

Training is scheduled to start this summer, lab officials said. But no work will begin unless U.S. District Judge Patti B. Sarris approves a risk assessment that the NIH has promised to deliver next year. Two safety reviews have been rejected as inadequate.

Allen, who first challenged the project, said her neighbors don't plan to gamble if the lab is allowed to open. "We want the spacesuits that the lab workers are going to have," she said firmly. "That's the only way we'll be safe."

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Home of the most dangerous

America's biodefense industry has boomed since Sept. 11. Congress increased funding for civilian biodefense projects from $690 million in 2001 to $5.4 billion last year. The number of known Biosafety Level 4 laboratories, designed to handle the world's most dangerous pathogens, went from five to 15. They are:

* Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Hamilton, Mont.

* Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, San Antonio

* Robert E. Shope Lab, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas

* National Biocontainment Laboratory, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston

* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta

* Georgia State University, Atlanta

* Emerging Infectious Diseases Lab, CDC, Atlanta

* Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratories, Richmond, Va.

* National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

* U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, Ft. Detrick, Md.

* Integrated Research Facility, National Institutes of Health, Ft. Detrick

* National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, Ft. Detrick

* U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, Ft. Detrick

* National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, Boston University Medical Center, Boston (completed, but not yet operating)

* National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, Manhattan, Kan. (site selected, but not yet built)

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Source: Los Angeles Times

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