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Last Updated

08 Jul 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, July 8, 2003

Residents, officials split over boom in biolab construction

Universities, towns want research funds; neighbors worry about safety risks

By Charles Piller, Special To The Sun

HAMILTON, Mont. - In the shadow of the snow-capped Bitterroot Mountains, moon-suit-clad scientists will soon begin producing gallons of concentrated death.

Armed guards, a reinforced perimeter and biometric locks will protect a hermetically sealed laboratory - a "hot zone" designed to trap the deadliest microbes on Earth: Ebola and Lassa viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers and others that produce exotic scourges for which no vaccines or medicines exist.

The lab's goal is finding cures for these feared bioterrorism agents, but that is little consolation to residents at the Hamilton Senior Center across the street, diners at the Spice of Life cafe downtown or boys scrimmaging on Hamilton Middle School's football field, a few blocks from the lab fence.

"We've got homes and children sleeping 50 meters away," said Jim Miller, a University of Montana research biologist and local resident. "They never consider the possibility that there could be a pathogen breach. It's like at Three Mile Island, saying that there could never be a release of radiation from a nuclear power plant."

The planned high-security lab is part of a federal movement to dot the country with at least six bioterrorism research facilities designed to the most stringent level of pathogen containment, a standard known as "Biosafety Level 4."

Universities, research centers and some local officials are clamoring to join the building boom because of the hundreds of millions of dollars in research money that will flow their way.

But the plans have sparked a furious "not in my back yard" movement, with residents mobilizing not against some mini-mall or landfill, but a key element of the federal research strategy against bioterrorism.

Residents have packed public hearings, questioning officials with angry suspicion. They have blocked a Department of Homeland Security plan to upgrade its Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island, N.Y., and have sued to scuttle a lab proposed by the University of California, Davis, where more than 50 faculty members oppose the lab.

"The risk is low, but the outcome is total devastation," said Linda Perry, a Hamilton veterinarian, gesturing toward the verdant river valley. "If there is an accident, people here are going to lose everything."

John La Montagne, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, in Bethesda, which operates Rocky Mountain Laboratories, where the new facility would be built, described local critics as intransigent spoilers who don't understand level-4 precautions.

Sterilized waste from such labs is cleaner than what comes out of any home, he said. "Safety is a nonissue," he said. "These are highly safe facilities."

But for lab opponents, the dispute has long transcended seemingly endless debates over technical safety and costs vs. benefits. The sealed facilities have become a troubling sign that the war on terrorism has intruded into once-routine lives, its shadow stretching into the farthest corners of America.

"In a naive way, I did think that I could move here and escape," said Cooper Neville, an artist who moved from New York to flee the nagging sense of modern doom - from terrorism to environmental disaster. "You can run, but you can't hide."


The town of Hamilton, population 3,700, lies in a sweeping river valley surrounded by mountains that soar to 10,000 feet. Driving south from Missoula, the landscape is dotted by ranches, the occasional seedy casino and several log-home builders. One of its biggest employers is Rocky Mountain Laboratories, which traces its roots to 1902, when scientists in a log cabin studied a mysterious disease, later named Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Hamilton would seem suitably remote for studying the tools of bioterrorism - the kind of place lab opponents in other towns might suggest as an alternative to their own communities.

The nation has never had an enormous need for such advanced facilities. There are now four level-4 labs - the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the Army's Fort Detrick in Maryland, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio and a facility at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda that uses only level-3 organisms.

The CDC will soon open another level-4 lab, as will the University of Texas at Galveston. NIAID plans large-scale labs at Hamilton and Fort Detrick. Boston University; the University of Illinois at Chicago; the New York State Department of Health in Rome, N.Y.; Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and UC Davis are vying to build two other labs.

Level-4 labs are an outgrowth of the two great terrors of modern biology - germ warfare and the advent of genetic engineering in the early 1970s, which opened the possibility of altered organisms with unknown risks.

A modern level-4 lab is a pristine isolation chamber - at once meticulously contained and yet unavoidably dirty and dangerous. About 20 liters of concentrated Ebola and other organisms - enough to infect every person on the planet - may be brewed for experiments to develop vaccines, said La Montagne. Multiliter quantities also are used to infect animals with a fine mist of deadly germs when testing vaccines.

Researchers enter in heavy, rubberized suits tethered to dedicated air supplies. They need security clearance and follow the two-person rule - no one works alone. Negative air pressure keeps germs inside; exhaust air passes through filters that trap microbial particles. Scientists exit through a chemical shower before disrobing.

Jim Orzechowski, chief executive of Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Inc. in Winnipeg, Canada, a top innovator in hot labs, said new labs are filled with safety systems and can withstand a small plane crash.

"We're getting as close to fail-safe as possible," Orzechowski said, adding: "as fail-safe as the space shuttle."

That analogy defines the rift between the labs and their neighbors: There will always remain some small chance of error. When it comes to Ebola, anthrax or other dangerous pathogens, a single mistake can lead to disaster.

Mary Wulff, a former Santa Ana, Calif., police officer who has coordinated opposition to the Hamilton lab, said, "What would make me happier than anything is never having to say, 'I told you so.' "

The debate has raged over wildly differing perceptions of unlikely, yet terrifying prospects.

There is no dispute that mistakes have been made in the past. Since the late 1960s, there have been about 75 laboratory infections involving organisms that require the highest containment - 10 fatal, according to the CDC. There have been no infections since 1980, and no one outside of a hot lab has ever been inadvertently infected.

Fort Detrick's aging laboratory sewer, a labyrinth of cast-iron pipes encased in concrete, has sprung numerous leaks. In 1997 the Army concluded that chemicals and "potentially infectious waste water" are leaching into the groundwater.

Orzechowski said that at the decades-old Fort Detrick and CDC labs, walls are cracking and ventilation systems degrading - endangering researchers but not the public.

Opponents of new level-4 labs view recent accidents as precursors to a lethal epidemic.

In April 2002, anthrax spores were twice found outside secure areas at Fort Detrick. The Army said no employees were sickened, but it has not disclosed the cause of the accidents.

In December, at the Plum Island level-3 lab, then run by the Department of Agriculture, primary and backup power systems failed for three hours, shutting down ventilation and filtration. Lab staff sealed secure areas with duct tape until power was restored. The incident occurred during a strike of maintenance employees, which featured accusations of vandalism.

Such lapses are less dangerous than they sound because outside a living host or controlled lab, most deadly microbes quickly die, experts say. The escape of infected animals or insects, accidental infection of a lab worker or the theft of lab samples pose a risk but are considered far-fetched prospects, given tight security, officials say.

Marshall Bloom, associate director of Rocky Mountain Laboratories, has heard all the arguments before but says they pale against the threat that a bioterrorist attack could catch the country unprepared. With more labs and researchers, he said, the United States could work faster to deal with what he considers a national emergency.

Charles Piller writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.