by Mary Wulff

Ask a Montanan about the Rocky Mountain Labs and chances are you’ll get a blank look. Perhaps that’s not surprising. The name is certainly innocuous. But in this era of bioterrorism concerns, the facility, operated by the National Institutes of Health, has proposed a major expansion, and Montanans, especially residents of the Bitterroot Valley and Missoula region, should take note.

Rocky Mountain Labs was established in Hamilton in 1927, originally for the purpose of studying tick-transmitted diseases. It’s a 33 acre facility adjoining the Bitterroot River. The lab has mostly kept a low profile with a reputation as a reasonably good neighbor, if pay checks are the barometer. Environmentally, however, there have been some problems, so much so that the EPA’s project to clean up hazardous waste sites, Superfund, has interceded. Due to on site dumping back in the 1940s and ’50s, for example, the Labs property is a Superfund site, and concerns about groundwater contamination have yet to be resolved. The Bitterroot Valley landfill, where wastes have been trucked from the lab, is likewise Superfund designated. There are stories about illnesses associated with the lab. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, researchers have become exposed to the very pathogens they were investigating. A bag of radioactive material in the lab was reported missing and apparently was never located.

In 2002, Rocky Mountain Labs announced its intent to expand into a Biosafety Level 4 facility. What that means is that lab scientists would study the world’s most deadly pathogens. When this plan was first aired to Hamilton citizens on a Valentines Day public meeting last year, some of us were not convinced this was a sweetheart deal. As a former southern California police officer, I, for one, appreciate the need to ask good questions and obtain solid answers. When we were informed that night about the lab’s aims, skepticism coalesced.

The nonprofit Coalition for a Safe Lab formed that summer. Quoting our mission statement, it’s our goal to “provide the public with accurate and current information about issues surrounding the proposed Biosafety Level 4 lab upgrade at Rocky Mountain Labs, and to encourage active citizen involvement in the preservation of public safety and environmental quality in and around our community.” We’ve been called a radical fringe group, and even unpatriotic, by some. But a gathering of concerned citizens, using legal means and due process to work with government agencies toward safeguarding our community, our valley, and our entire region, seems like one of the best possible ways there could be to show the flag.

Our concerns about the Rocky Mountain Labs expansion include the potential risk of exposure or outbreak of a deadly disease due to the accidental or intentional release of pathogens. We are also worried about air and water quality impacts due to incineration and dumping of potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment. Coalition members also feel the expansion will affect our quality of life, including a drop in real estate values due to the stigma of living in an area in which extremely dangerous diseases are being studied. Ebola, for example, isn’t a particularly desirable neighbor. A Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) covering the proposed upgrade was released. A Record Of Decision was signed the very day that the comment period ended, June 7, 2004.

Our issues are far more than back yard concerns, and we hope that other communities will take heed of the lab issue too. The Bitterroot River, flowing past the lab, goes north toward Missoula, about fifty miles north of Hamilton. Air currents travel likewise. Anything released in the lab incinerator, or lost in runoff or in groundwater from the site could find its way to Missoula. Some of the waste trucked from Rocky Mountain Labs also winds up in a Missoula landfill.

There are some extremely unsavory pathogens coming from other directions as well. Whether brought by mail, highway, or aircraft, anything studied at the lab is likely to arrive via Missoula. Furthermore, our town, and for that matter, western Montana, does not have healthcare facilities specializing in infectious diseases. If there was an accident, what sort of medical response can be expected?

By our appraisal, the Final Environmental Impact Statement is not objective, nor does it adequately address some very basic issues. The Coalition for a Safe Lab, along with two other local environmental groups, Friends of the Bitterroot and Women's Voices for the Earth, have filed a lawsuit in Federal Court. The judge has ordered mediation, which is scheduled for September 27, 2004.

The proliferation of labs across the United States, and around the world, may increase the possibility of deadly pathogens being used for less than peaceful purposes.
It's unfortunate that the people in Hamilton have to fight for a real democratic process. We deserve a say in this matter of national importance, of having a biolab in our, or anyone’s, backyard. However, we feel hopeful that, through educating the public, the Coalition for a Safe Lab, as well as other groups throughout the United States, can make real and lasting changes.

Mary Wulff formed the Coalition for a Safe Lab in 2002, in order to help inform the community about the dangers the proposed Lab facility upgrade. The Coalition is a Montanan non-profit organization with about 200 members.

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