Backers, opponents face off over proposed bioterror lab
By Kevin Joy, Globe Correspondent | April 21, 2004
Boston University officials came face to face yesterday with area residents afraid that an antibioterrorism laboratory proposed for the South End would jeopardize the local community and population.
Area residents, researchers, and educators packed City Council chambers for the first public informational hearing on the proposed lab, which has divided residents and industry scientists for months.
The lab, planned by Boston University Medical Center, would research deadly infectious diseases such as AIDS and SARS and biological agents such as anthrax. While residents argued the lab would not be worth the risk, BU Medical Center officials and some scientists said the center would advance Boston's prominence as a research capital and create new jobs. They testified that the building's urban location would attract top-ranked specialists to the community and that security systems would adhere to the strictest of federal standards.
"In this day and age, we still don't know much about infectious diseases, which is why we see so much fear about this project," said Richard Towle, senior vice president of BU. "We are still at our infancy and this is a great leap forward to benefit public health."
Kevin Tuohey, BU Medical Center executive director of operations and public safety, said the proposed security plans for the nine-story building would include a complex system of ID cards, retinal scans, and outside access control using biometrics that would focus more on "identification of people, not their pin numbers." He called the areas where infectious disease research would be conducted as "submarines within a vault" and said that particles would be sterilized after research is finished.
Officials assured the panel of city councilors, led by Councilor Jerry McDermott, that the center is not a bioweapons facility and that research projects would not be classified. Groups opposing the lab, including Safety Net and Alternatives for Community and Environment, say that the partial funding from the US Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes for Health could take away exclusive research control from BU and allow private projects.
Councilor Paul J. Scapicchio expressed concern over the transportation of infectious disease samples delivered to the proposed lab, which Tuohey said would occur roughly three times a month. Though no delivery plan has been established, it is possible that the organisms could be sent via a package company such as Federal Express or UPS. However, they would be sent in tested, triple-layered packaging by "white-glove" drivers trained and screened by federal authorities, Tuohey said.
Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan questioned how medical center officials could monitor the South End and surrounding areas for health problems if an infectious disease managed to slip out. And Councilor at Large Felix D. Arroyo grilled lab proponents on safety details and the likelihood of a disease transmission. Arroyo, Hennigan, and Councilors Chuck Turner and Charles C. Yancey have voiced opposition to the project.
Patricia Hynes, a professor at BU's School of Public Health, called the center an "environmental injustice" for the close proximity of an "undesirable and controversial public institution" near low-income neighborhoods, which she deemed "sacrifice zones . . . for regional benefit."
But Dr. Mark S. Klemper, BU Medical Center's associate provost for research, said the lab would help with the worldwide effort to fight the infectious diseases that ravage Third World countries and the developed world. "This is a facility that will lead an effort to develop understanding and better diagnostics against infectious diseases," he said. "This is a facility about public health."
However, the risks seem to outweigh the benefits, said Dolly Battle, a Roxbury resident and chairwoman of Safety Net. "The incurable diseases, the forms of transport for those diseases, along with no chain of command that will properly inform the community of accidents are unacceptable," she said.
Before yesterday's hearing, about three dozen protesters marched in front of City Hall, chanting and waving signs decrying the lab.
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