There’s a common saying that if you can’t measure it, you can’t control it. Leaders of Boston University’s proposed National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) – known as the BU Biolab – in the densely populated urban environmental justice community of Roxbury/ South End, have asked the state to waive required review of their plans to build a lab involving rare and lethal pathogens even though their prior risk assessments were found inadequate multiple times. In other words, they want to build a risk laden facility without accountability to the public. We oppose the grant of this request.
We Support Secretary Sullivan’s Decision in Favor of Thorough Review
Today advocates in the fight against the Biolab filed joint comments with Secretary Sullivan supporting his draft decision which, if adopted as final later this month, will deny BU’s request to begin high level research before a full risk assessment is reviewed by EOEEA.
Background on the Biolab
The facility would focus its research on biological agents used in acts of bioterrorism – a mission the community fears will bring biodefense research on highly contagious pathogens to their densely populated urban neighborhoods. Members of the Roxbury/South End communities have expressed vocal opposition to the siting of this facility near their homes and schools.
Biocontainment Safety Level ratings, established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increase from 1 to 4 based on the danger associated with research on different biological pathogens and mandate increasing levels of physical protection to prevent a public health crisis in the event that a pathogen leaves the lab (e.g. through transmission from an infected lab worker, an escaped animal subject, or an outbreak resulting from a natural disaster or a malevolent act at the lab). BU’s NEIDL would include research in each of the four Biocontainment Safety Levels.
Research in labs designated as Biocontainment Safety Level 4 (BSL-4), the highest level, includes rare and lethal pathogens, such as ebola. According to BU’s waiver application to EOEEA, their BSL-4 research would involve pathogens that “cause diseases that are usually life-threatening” and are spread through the air or “an unknown cause of transmission.” BU has also quoted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as stating that pathogens appropriate for research in BSL-3 laboratories “cause diseases that may have serious or lethal consequences” and are transmitted through the air.
BU’s Multiple Failures
BU has attempted – multiple times – to explain and justify the risks associated with the NEIDL as required by state and federal statutes. Each time, they have failed and been subject to criticism for the poor quality of their analysis.
Their risk assessments (which must satisfy requirements under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act) have been found to be insufficient and not credible by the EOEEA and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, as well as the National Research Council. Each of these failures to acknowledge the risks associated with the NEIDL has alienated the community, resulting in a marked distrust of BU.
BU has now partially completed its third attempt to justify the risks associated with the NEIDL. This time the risk assessment is being conducted by the National Institutes of Health (who provided significant federal funding for the project) and their private consultant, Tetra Tech.
BU’s Request to Limit Review of Risks
Concurrently with their third attempt to justify the risks associated with the NEIDL, BU filed a written request asking Secretary Sullivan to waive the legal requirement for EOEEA review of certain research at the lab. BU’s request applied to all proposed research for the NEIDL except that which would occur in BSL-4 labs. CLF and other opponents of the lab strongly opposed this request. A waiver from full EOEEA review would deny the Commonwealth the opportunity to ensure that the risks to the surrounding environmental justice community from this facility had been fully considered.
On December 2, in his draft waiver decision and Certificate on Notice of Project Change, Secretary Sullivan allowed lower level research (BSL-1 and 2) to proceed but stated that EOEEA is “legally barred from acting on [BU’s] waiver request for BSL-3 level research until I am able to independently review the risk assessment for the contagious pathogens proposed for study by BU at the Biolab.”
Today CLF joined the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Anderson & Kreiger, a law firm representing the Safety Net, a community group led by local activist Klare Allen, and other affected community members, in submitting written comments to Secretary Sullivan calling upon him to finalize his draft decision denying a waiver of EOEEA review for BSL-3 research at the NEIDL, and reminding him of his charge under the EOEEA Environmental Justice Policy to ensure that this review process provides enhanced public participation opportunities.
As we state in our comments, we thank the Secretary for recognizing that the NEIDL will involve “research on extremely contagious biological agents that could pose serious harm to an already compromised Environmental Justice community.”
What You Can Do:
- A final decision from Secretary Sullivan on BU’s waiver request is expected on December 28. Stay tuned for news about that decision here. A final draft of NIH’s risk assessment is expected to be issued by NIH in the next few months.
- NIH’s Blue Ribbon Panel will come to Hibernia Hall in Roxbury on February 16th to hold a public meeting and hear comments on NIH’s draft risk assessment for the NEIDL. CLF will post the date, time, and other details for the public meeting here when they become available. Mark your calendar and join CLF and its partners in seeking to ensure that this facility does not introduce unnecessary risk to an already overburdened environmental justice community.
Jenny Rushlow, Conservation Law Foundation