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Tuesday, September 30, 2008  
Activists Target Biodefense Labs On Environmental Grounds

By: Stuart Parker
Published In: Defense Environment Alert

Community activists around the country are coalescing for the first time to oppose the expansion of biological defense laboratories on public health and environmental grounds, claiming the proliferation of such facilities will increase the risks that deadly diseases will escape into the environment. The military owns some of the biodefense labs.

The move comes at a time of heightened congressional interest in such expansions, with lawmakers in the recent omnibus spending bill calling for a high-level review of environmental impact analyses the Army has conducted for a lab expansion in Maryland. And a key House Democrat over the last year has been advocating a moratorium on the construction of new biodefense labs, citing concerns over safety controls.

A coalition of groups located near various biodefense labs is now also calling for a moratorium on the construction of new facilities. The coalition, in a first-of-its-kind statement issued Sept. 18, also advocates a halt to their operation while control procedures are reevaluated. "We all have specific, local health, safety and environmental concerns about these labs existing in our midst," the groups say.

Concern over the safety of such biodefense labs has been growing since a series of anthrax attacks killed several people in the Washington D.C. area in 2001, and subsequent revelations that the probable source of the outbreak was a government laboratory. Until now, the issue has been painted largely as a public health question, but as one activist points out, certain pathogens, once released into the environment, become difficult or impossible to eradicate.

The source cites anthrax and avian influenza as examples of pathogens that once released can persist in the environment in soil and animal populations, with potentially devastating results. The source is with the activist group Tri-Valley CAREs in California, a signatory to the statement. Foot-and-Mouth Disease, a condition not known to harm humans but deadly to cattle, is another example of a pathogen being studied at biodefense facilities that, once released into the environment, can do enormous damage.

A series of high profile outbreaks of the disease in Europe in recent years has led to the shutdown and quarantine of large tracts of countryside. In the latest outbreak in the United Kingdom, the British government found the release of the disease was caused by one of its own laboratories discharging contaminated wastewater into nearby farmland.

The biodefense issue has already elicited considerable congressional interest. In action just last week, lawmakers through report language attached to the FY09 continuing resolution -- the omnibus spending bill that funds DOD and other agencies through next March -- Congress calls for scientific experts to review the NEPA analyses the Army conducted for a biodefense lab expansion in Maryland. The lawmakers cite concerns over possible health and safety risks.

The measure takes aim at the Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, MD. ?hough the Army has completed the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] process to assess the impact of the expansion on the environment, significant concerns continue to exist in the local community as to whether the assessments of potential health and safety risks and the strategies to mitigate those risks are sufficient,?the report says.

The report language directs the defense secretary to ask the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate the NEPA analyses conducted by the military on the health and safety risks of the lab? expansion, and report back to Congress by March 1, 2010.

In addition, the House Energy & Commerce Committee has over the past year been probing plans to expand biodefense labs. Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) has called for a moratorium on construction of new biodefense labs, which have mushroomed since the federal government ramped up its efforts to combat potential terrorism using biological weapons in 2004. Dingell, however, has stopped short of asking for a halt to existing research.

An attorney for Tri-Valley CAREs says that NEPA offers the best route to challenge biodefense lab construction and operation because of the strong emphasis on public participation in the law, and its provision for citizen suits. It is much more difficult to challenge the labs under health and safety law, which is the prerogative of state and federal regulators, the lawyer says, adding "NEPA speaks to effects to the human environment."

A source with a group protesting the expansion of biodefense facilities run by the Army, Department of Homeland Security, and National Institutes of Health at Fort Detrick points to two challenges to biodefense lab construction using environmental law and says more such suits are possible.

At a Boston University facility in Boston, MA, and at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons facility, CA, activists have sued under state and federal environmental statutes, the activist points out. While DOD was not a defendant in either case, Defense Department facilities could easily be targeted in a similar fashion, the source says.

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a Department of Energy (DOE) facility, Tri-Valley CAREs sued the government in 2003 over its failure to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by NEPA for a new biodefense lab at the site. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ordered DOE to consider whether the threat to the lab posed by terrorism justified preparing an EIS. DOE, however, opted instead for a lower-level environmental assessment, which triggered new legal action by activists earlier this year.

In the renewed litigation, Tri-Valley CAREs contends the consideration of the impact of possible terrorist attacks on the lab is inadequate. The judge in the case is expected to issue a ruling in the near future on the plaintiff? request for a preliminary injunction to shut down the lab, the lawyer for the group says.

In Boston, legal action has focused on a new BSL-4 level facility being built at Boston University? campus in the city's economically disadvantaged South End, with activists contending the facility violates the state version of NEPA known as the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). Bio-Safety Level-4, or BSL-4, is the highest level of risk, containing those pathogens such as Ebola fever, for which no effective medical countermeasures exist. The facility, largely bankrolled by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has faced vociferous local opposition. Under a ruling from the state's Supreme Judicial Court issued Dec. 13, the university and NIH must undertake an environmental review of the facilities in order to comply with MEPA. This marks the latest major legal step in a long history of litigation that dates back to January 2005.

NIH and Boston University expect to complete an additional environmental risk assessment under MEPA at the end of 2009. Opponents of the new lab also complain that the defendants failed to prepare an EIS for the lab under NEPA.

A community activist and expert in environmental cleanups at federal facilities says the nascent anti-biolab movement is reminiscent of the early days of activism against chemical weapons disposal facilities. That movement also began with local groups working in isolation, then developed into a more coordinated national phenomenon, the source says.

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