Biowar Lab Alarms Residents

Anti-nuclear groups and residents in California and New Mexico are accusing the federal government of starting construction on a controversial biodefense lab without fully assessing and publicizing its projected environmental impact.

In a lawsuit brought to an appeals court in San Francisco last Tuesday, the groups are demanding the Department of Energy (DoE) expand its investigation into public-health threats they say the agency's project at the Livermore National National Laboratory poses.

The proposed lab, set to open in August, is a Biosafety Level 3 Facility, which is suited for working with airborne infectious agents that can cause lethal diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition. Activist groups Tri-Valley Cares and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, joined by California and New Mexico residents, argued in a previous court briefing that the laboratory's plans to "aerosolize" bioagents would leave nearby residents in the developed area vulnerable to exposure, especially in the event of an earthquake. The activists also argued that adding the presence of bioagents to a nuclear laboratory makes it more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Circuit Chief Judge Mary Schroeder expressed concern about the laboratory at Tuesday's hearing. "What I find to be the most troublesome thing is this is being built in a very highly populated area," she said, according to the Contra Costa Times.

The groups' main legal linchpin is that the Department of Energy did not release an environmental-impact statement, which federal agencies must do before starting projects that could be harmful to the public health. Such statements can take months to complete. The Oakland office of the Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) filed its own environmental assessment report of the project in December 2002. The NNSA downplayed public-health risks in a statement released in conjunction with the study.

"Based on the analysis in the environmental assessment for the proposed project," NNSA manager Camille Yuan-Soo Hoo said in a statement, "NNSA has determined that no significant environmental impacts are expected and the potential consequences from routine operations would be minimal." The NNSA manages the nation's nuclear-weapons development programs on behalf of the DoE.

According to news reports, defense attorneys said the Department considered the impact of catastrophes and determined no significant dangers.

But opponents of the lab said that given the area's high population and proximity to two fault lines, the Department should have issued an environmental-impact statement. An EIS would detail all harmful effects, natural resources used and alternatives to the proposal, as well as require public hearings.

"As BSL-3 labs experimenting with aerosolized, highly contagious and potentially deadly pathogens and toxins proliferate, the risk of accidental releases of these poisons into the human environment grows," they argued in a brief.

One deadly pathogen that could be housed at the facility is anthrax, which thousands of people could be exposed to if five grams were accidentally released, according to Matthew McKinzie, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. McKinzie calculated potential anthrax plumes in the event of a catastrophe and provided written testimony during proceedings.

Using the computer model Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability, McKenzie said that depending on wind direction, the number of people exposed could be as low as 300 and as high as 128,000. McKinzie calculated that at a concentration in which a person has a 2 percent chance of dying from exposure, the dispersion could cause 6 to 2,500 deaths.

The advocacy groups first sued the Energy Department in August 2003, calling for a halt on the construction of the lab. The US District Court in Northern California sided with the DoE, allowing the agency to begin construction of the laboratory. Legal controversies have not discouraged the University of California, which operates the Livermore facility, from pursuing the development of more biodefense labs. The public university announced plans to bid on another "Bio Level 3-4 facility" that would test even deadlier pathogens, according to a meeting of the University Committee on Research Policy held in April.

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