Boston City Council Member Chuck Turner Talks About Biodefense Research Expansion
by Sujatha Byravan

Chuck Turner has been an active force in progressive politics for decades. A vocal Boston activist since graduation from Harvard, Council Member Turner now represents Boston’s district 7, which includes parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, the South End, Kenmore and Fenway. He is the Chair of the Council’s Human Rights Committee, and Vice Chair of the Hunger and Homelessness Committee. He has most recently been involved in an effort to block the construction of Boston University’s Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory.

GeneWatch: The current expansion and upgrading of labs across the country to Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4), is, according to the Bush Administration, meant to address public safety concerns and contribute to national security. Do you agree with that statement?

Chuck Turner: I think one legitimate question is, if the issue is really one of health concerns, why are the BSL-4 labs we already have not enough? I haven’t really heard the argument for why there is a need for this significant increase in BSL-4 lab technology in order to develop vaccines. It would seem to me that the BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs that we already have should be sufficient. What’s clear is that the Bush initiative is not about health issues. As I read statements from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), they’re talking about biowarfare, clearly. Their objective in putting money into Boston is not general health concerns.

When you see this proliferation of laboratories focused on biowarfare, when you hear discussions by scientists who say that in order to develop strategies for disarming bioweapons, you have to develop weaponrs yourself, it seems to me that what we’re seeing are labs across the country that are going to be, in fact, developing bioweapons. Supposedly, this is to find agents that can counteract bioweapons, but when you look at the fact that the Bush administration is not willing to sign the inspections provision of the international Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), one can see that this could really be a dangerous situation. Our government refuses to sign the treaties, while investing millions, ultimately billions, of dollars in the development of these new laboratories through the National Institutes of Health, where there will be work going on that is the basis for developing bioweapons. This certainly seems like a situation that is ripe for corruption and misuse. That’s why I think this struggle in Boston has national implications, in terms of people beginning to stand up and speak out, not only about the question of where these labs are being located, but whether our government is trying to develop a base for biological warfare in the guise of public health issues.

When did you first learn about the Boston University Lab? Do you have any concerns other than the possibility of accidents, which has been the main focus of the community?

I heard about it in the beginning of 2003, when there were discussions that B.U. was going to have a meeting in the South End about the construction of this lab. In terms of the concerns, one certainly is about accidents. A second concern is the issue of location from the standpoint of economics and job creation. The laboratory is going to be built right next to an area that has approximately ten thousand blue-collar jobs that are held by Boston workers. Many of those workers are in companies that are family owned and are not large corporations. So, the concern is how this laboratory would affect the stability of those jobs. There is talk about seven hundred new jobs in the laboratory; we believe that, at most, a small percentage would go to members of the community. We have one of the best caches of blue-collar jobs in the city of Boston right in that area, which we cannot afford to lose. It doesn’t seem like anyone is thinking about that particular issue.

The third issue is whether we should be concerned about a government that won’t sign the inspection provisions that would make the BWC a real instrument for containing biowarfare, while at the same time putting a laboratory in our backyard where they could be developing bioweapons.

Are the majority of the residents in district 7 opposed to the lab?

A majority of people are. They just don’t think it makes any sense to build this kind of facility in a dense urban area.

There has been a lot of political support for the lab, including from Mayor Thomas Menino and Senator Edward Kennedy. Why do you think these politicians differ from your opinion on the lab? Do you think they are convinced by the possibility of attracting funds or job growth?

In general, cities are in a very difficult situation in this country. Public policies that promote the growth of cities don’t really focus on the needs of the people who live in them. Cities are, essentially, instruments for the creation of wealth in the business community and by those who already have significant investment capital. We have a federal government whose policies are not designed to be of assistance to cities. Out tax base in the city is dependant on property tax, and the ability to persuade other people to come in and constantly build in order to increase the property tax base. When you get the lab, you get the rhetoric that B.U. has been using, i.e., how this will attract pharmaceutical companies, and how those companies will be coming in with buildings and jobs. Policy makers realize, given the federal governmental policies, the only way cities can survive is to be able to lure investment capital in to build buildings that increase the property tax base. They see this lab as a potential strategy to strengthen the financial base of the city, and dismiss concerns about the future.

The reality is that those who are making the decisions and providing the leadership don’t live in the South End. The reality is that Mayor Menino will be gone from office in a little while, Governor Mitt Romney is looking for other offices to move on to, and Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy are isolated. In many ways, they are all somewhat isolated from the effects of this decision. So, they are doing what politicians tend to do. We politicians make very short term decisions and don’t worry about the consequences. We let future administrations deal with them. I think it’s typical short-sighted thinking on the part of politicians trying to make the cities work, when the federal government has essentially neglected its responsibilities.

You have proposed an ordinance to ban any BSL-4 lab in the city of Boston. Could you update us on the status of the proposal, and tell us which city councilors oppose it and who might still be persuaded?

Right now, there are three of us who have been fully committed to support the ban: myself, Councilor Felix Arroyo and Councilor Maura Hennigan. Councilor Arroyo is the only Latino on the council. He was elected last year, and had served the year before as part of the term of someone who left the council. The other person, Maura Hennigan, has been a city councilor for about twenty years now. Charles Yancey, who is the other black city councilor, has said he will vote for the ordinance. He hasn’t been an active advocate, but he has made clear recently that he would support the ban. Mike Ross, a young councilor elected five years ago, has serious concerns about the laboratory, but he hasn’t made the commitment to support our ban as yet. Ross would make five; we need seven to pass the ordiance and nine to override the mayor’s veto, since we know he would veto it. At this point, there are a couple of councilors, who I won’t name since they haven’t made themselves clear enough in terms of their leanings on the ban, but there are a couple that may be willing to vote for it.

As far as getting the other two votes, it’s harder to say. What the coalition that is opposing the lab is doing is searching for materials and information that will be persuasive to other council members that the risks involved in this outweigh what they see as the benefits of strengthening the economic situation in Boston.

Given that the federal funds for the construction of the lab have been approved, do you still think this ordinance is a good strategy to stop the lab?

In these kinds of situations you have to have a multiple-strategy approach. At the moment, even with the lack of votes, it’s the best strategy that we presently have to stop the lab. The other kinds of strategies would look to the State Department or state agencies and show them that there are risks involved. But the state environmental agencies are staffed with people that are appointed by Romney. Romney supports the laboratory, so while we still have to pursue that area of strategy, the likelihood of getting Romney appointees to take action against the lab is even more doubtful than our ability to get nine Councilors to support the ban.

Lawyers at Alternatives for Community and Environment have looked at the legal strategies, and it is not clear that we have any legal basis to challenge the lab’s existence. The political strategy, at the moment, looks to have the best chance of succeeding, even though there are severe obstacles, such as the attitudes of the councilors.

In the post 9/11 climate, where there is an increased fear of terrorism, when the Bush Administration has increased bioterrorism funding through projects like Bioshield, do you think that any city will be able to oppose the Federal government on an issue related to national security? Even if Boston was united in opposing the facility, do you think the Federal government would stop construction?

I think the climate issue is a serious factor in the politics of the lab. Fortunately, we have a tripartite form of government, and the courts still do, from time to time, show independent initiative. The fact that the city of Cambridge went to court, back in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, to fight against an operation that was dealing with such experimentation sets a precedent. As I understand it, the building had actually started to be constructed, yet the court blocked it from continuing. If we are able to pass the ordinance and overcome the Mayor’s veto, would the Federal government be able to step in and stop us? I’m sure they would try. But again, because courts sometimes show independent thinking, there would still be a strong possibility of stopping the lab, particularly because the Federal government is using B.U. as a shield. That is, B.U. keeps saying “this is our laboratory, the government can’t tell us what to do,” and “put your faith in B.U., you don’t have to worry what administration is in power.”

Since they are taking the position that this is really about B.U., we think it would make it more difficult for the government to step in. It seems that they are very comfortable playing this role in the background, supplying the money, and having B.U. take an aggressive position that this has nothing to do with the government, and they are just going to be doing the right thing at this lab with government money. In a legal challenge to our blocking the lab through an ordinance, the government would have to cut through the whole façade, I would think, in order to aggressively challenge it. As the government cuts through this façade, it will make it even more clear to the people that B.U.’s claims of independence are not real.

My concern isn’t so much about whether we would be successful once we get the ordinance, my concern is really the politics of getting it passed. I think even if we can get the ordinance in place, it will still be a struggle. But I think we can win the struggle for the right to determine how our city is used.

The original request for proposals by the NIAID said that the government would control research in the new lab for twenty years. Opponents of the lab have primarily concentrated on preventing its construction, but considering it may go ahead regardless, should we be taking steps to ensure that the communities can participate in oversight of the facility?

I think it makes sense to continue to focus on stopping the lab itself. The difficulty is that having real oversight., Having the ability to know each and every experiment going on, or the ability to know what agents are in there at all times, is blocked to us by legislation that is already in place. For example, there is legislation that says that the decision about whether or not to make leaks public is ultimately made by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. There are these layers of legality that give the government the authority to limit information. I think we have to acknowledge that, if the lab is built, while we would still struggle against it, it’s not an area where we should have confidence in our ability to be an effective watchdog.

The Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton, Montana is being upgraded from BSL-3 to BSL-4. There have been a number of community groups that are now calling for an independent biosafety committee to oversee the lab. It’s not clear if B.U. is planning on setting up an independent biosafety committee specifically for this lab, or extending the reach of the one currently in place for the University. Considering it is the Boston Public Health Commission’s mission to protect the health and well-being of the residents of Boston, what do you think they should do in this regard? Do you think they are prepared to protect the community in the case of accidents?

Are we prepared? No. That’s one of my concerns, and a concern of other people, I think. The commission members are appointed by the mayor, and the mayor is supporting the lab. As long as he’s there, we have to see the commission as doing whatever it can do to advance the possibility of building and operating the lab. Their ability to be a watchdog mechanism is hindered by the politics of the situation, and by a mayor who very much wants to see the lab develop. I think John Auerbach [Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission] is a very dedicated public servant who is concerned about public health, but the reality is, he serves at the willingness of the commission and Menino. And so, I think his ability to use the Commission as a safeguard is damaged.

There are some critics who have been saying that opposing the lab in Boston will merely shift it to another location. They refer to this position taken by some of the community groups as “NIMBYism” - Not in My Back Yard. Is that the position you have taken? Where do you think such a lab should be located in that case?

What is clear, when you compare the area that this lab is being located in to the areas where other BSL-4 labs have been built, is that the area in Boston has far greatest population density than any other community where a BSL-4 lab is located. I think our population density is at least four or five times greater than the one in Atlanta, which has the closest density level. It’s clear that the placement in Boston is a departure from the previous locations, which were in less dense areas. I think it’s legitimate to raise questions about whether this kind of facility should be located in a dense urban environment.
But at the same time, I have questions whether any more labs are needed. There’s been no discussion about what’s necessary to deal with infectious diseases and what kind of capabilities we already have. There’s no discussion about it. Why? Because that’s not the issue. The issue is how to build a series of labs that will deal with bioterrorism. We aren’t even looking at the fundamental questions, which are, from my perspective, joining as a participant in supporting international inspections and working to eliminate biological weapons.

There’s been a movement for decades, trying to eliminate the use of nuclear weapons; there should be a movement to try to eliminate the use of bioweapons. I think it would be much better for us to be putting our time and effort, as a government and as people, into working on strategies to eliminate bioweapons around the world, instead of building more laboratories that very well could be used as a basis for biological weapons development, in the name of being more prepared. But our government, for whatever reason, won’t even agree to cooperate with the international inspections provision. I think this issue in Boston has tremendously significant implications in national and international policy, and it is today’s counterpart to the discussion going on in the ’60s about nuclear warfare. I imagine, as time goes on, we’ll see a growing movement beginning to question not just where these labs are located, but whether we should be building any kinds of facilities like this, which are clearly about biowarfare and not for finding cures for diseases.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the lab or our nation’s biodefense policy in general?

As you study American history, or the history of other countries, you see history is propelled forward by human beings who get into positions of power. This country has a history of having men rise to power, and who then use their position to do things that the people never knew about and wouldn’t support. There is no reason to think that this has changed. In fact, given the Bush Administration, we have reason to understand that we are still living with the danger of government officials using their power to further their own ends.
The issue of building more BSL-4 laboratories is the same kind of danger that Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to warn us against. He said in 1960, “beware the military-industrial complex,” because if you put all that power in the hands of politicians, military leaders and corporate heads, they might use that power in destructive ways. And forty years later, we can see the danger he was talking about. If you build more BSL-4 laboratories, you are creating the environment that can be used to develop agents that can be used in a destructive way, when they ought to be eliminated.

Sujatha Byravan is the Executive Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

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