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Planned biolab worries Mass. neighborhood

A bioweapons defense lab under construction in a gritty part of south Boston has nearby residents worried that highly contagious pathogens might escape.
/ Source: Reuters

A $178 million bioweapons defense lab under construction in a gritty section of south Boston has nearby residents worried that highly contagious pathogens might escape from it and threaten their lives.

Local groups and an environmental law firm have sued to cut off crucial federal funding for the project in a bid to halt completion of the Boston University-run infectious disease laboratory.

Construction of the 194,000-square-foot lab began in March and is set to be finished in 2008.

“I just don’t trust their guarantees that nothing will go wrong,” says Christina Petrillo, manager of Liquor Land, an alcohol retailer located a few city blocks from the site.

Shalanda Black, who works at a nearby hair salon, said she fears “they’re gonna have stuff coming out of there ... . I’m hoping it’s going to be safe.”

The danger posed by biological weapons has attracted public attention since the mailings of anthrax-laced letters to media and government offices in Washington, Florida and elsewhere in late 2001.

Five people died in the attacks, and the case remains unsolved.

Security officials have long warned that al-Qaida could try to use biological weapons such as anthrax, ricin, smallpox, plague or Ebola. Al-Qaida manuals on preparation of biological warfare agents were discovered at the group’s training camps in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

‘We simply do not know’
The lab would allow scientists to study pathogens such as the Ebola and SARS viruses, which can be transmitted through the air and pose a high risk of life-threatening illness.

The Conservation Law Foundation, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a local environmental law firm filed suit in U.S. District Court in Boston on May 18 to block the lab’s federal funding, charging that an environmental review had failed to ensure its safety.

The National Institutes of Health is set to make its initial reply to the suit next week. NIH officials declined to comment for this story.

“What are the possibilities of one of these pathogens getting out, and what would happen?” asked Conservation Law Foundation lawyer Eloise Lawrence. “We simply do not know.”

Boston University spokeswoman Ellen Berlin said the lab will be safe, create jobs, “find cures and save lives.”

The NIH, which gave final approval to the project in February, is contributing $128 million in funding for the lab’s construction. Boston University is contributing $50 million.

7 other sites under construction
According to watchdog group The Sunshine Project, six such labs are operating in the United States. Seven more are under construction including the Boston University site.

Some of these labs are part of a military base in Frederick, Maryland. But others are in towns and cities including Hamilton, Montana, and Galveston, Texas.

In 2004, Montana environmental groups failed to block the expansion of Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton.

According to Montana activist Larry Campbell of Friends of the Bitterroot, Rocky Mountain Labs sits in a residential neighborhood. He questions why organizers did not choose a more remote site for the lab, which is still being expanded.

“Our idea was build it downwind, out of town,” he said.