Maura In The News

Next up in biolab debate: dueling scientists at Hall
By Christine MacDonald, Globe Correspondent | April 18, 2004

Roxbury and South End activists, who gained 146 high-powered academic and professional allies last week, say they see the tide of debate finally turning in their yearlong battle against a planned top-security biodefense laboratory in their neighborhood.

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"Now we've got people hearing us," said Alma Feliciano, a member of the Safety Net, a Roxbury activist group that has spearheaded opposition to the federal lab Boston University Medical Center seeks to build on its South End campus near Roxbury.

"It was very hard to get the city council to sit with us. Now, they are opening up the office," said Feliciano, one of several activists and university professors who trekked to City Hall last week to share their views with city councilors ahead of a council hearing on the matter scheduled for Tuesday.

The group delivered a letter opposing the lab from the 146 Massachusetts university professors, including two Harvard University Nobel Prize winners, scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and academics from Boston University. Among concerns raised in the letter, which was addressed to the council members, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and the BU Trustees, was the possibility that human error or a terrorist attack could lead to a deadly accident.

The Safety Net and their allies at Alternatives for Community and Environment had raised the same questions since learning of the plans to study lethal biological agents such as the Ebola virus, anthrax and plague at the facility, known officially as a Biosafety Level 4 lab.

"They haven't answered my questions yet," said Dolly Battle, Safety Net chair, referring to BU officials. She said she was heartened, nevertheless, that professors who signed the letter, were raising the same questions.

"We still have work to do but it's not as hard as it once was because we have our experts," Battle said after last Tuesday's meeting with a half dozen council members. "Having experts in the room today did make a lot of difference."

Lab opponents want the city council to pass an ordinance drafted by Councilor Chuck Turner that would prohibit Level 4 labs from the city. So far only councilors Maura Hennigan and Felix Arroyo have voiced support for such a ban.

The mayor and Governor Mitt Romney are staunch backers of the lab, saying the project would have sufficiently tight security and would enhance Boston's status as a biotech center.

With support from Menino and Romney, Boston University Medical Center won a highly competitive federal grant last fall to construct the lab.

Officials hope to break ground next year and complete construction in 2007.

Last week, city officials reiterated their support. "We believe this is going to be a very beneficial project for the city of Boston and its residents," Sonal Gandhi, senior project manager at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, told the Globe.

BU Medical Center executives also stressed tight security plans.

"This building is being designed to the most stringent, state-of-the-art safety specifications geared toward keeping both the researchers and the community safe," said BU Medical Center spokeswoman Ellen Berlin last week.

Scientists who oppose the lab, however, said it was a bad idea to place it in a densely populated city neighborhood, where it would be difficult to stop a lethal infection from spreading in the event of an accident.

"It's not a matter of door locks," said Jonathan King, a professor of molecular biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"You have to assume," he said, "the organisms will go out with the individuals" who work in the lab.

At Tuesday's council hearing, scientists supporting and opposing the lab will face off for first the time in a public forum, activists said.

Christine MacDonald can be reached at [email protected]

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