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Last Updated

19 Aug 2003

Source: Boston Globe, August 19, 2003

Opposition grows to BU's biodefense lab plan

Facility could house pathogens

By Katherine Lutz, Globe Correspondent

Community opposition is mounting to Boston University Medical Center's proposed $1.6 billion biodefense laboratory, a facility designed to house the deadliest agents known to man, including Ebola and smallpox, in the South End.

Fifty Boston residents from Dorchester to Jamaica Plain protested in front of the Medical Center recently, concerned with the safety risks to adjacent neighborhoods and what they said was BU's lack of community outreach. Over the last month, local politicians, including Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner and state Representative Gloria Fox, have come out against the research lab, joining a growing list of community groups and leaders.

"We have at least 500 to 800 signatures from folks around the city who don't want to see this built in the heart of the city," said Klare X. Allen, a member of The Safety Net, a Roxbury neighborhood group that organized the protest. Allen is particularly concerned with the transport of hazardous materials though Boston neighborhoods.

Community leaders say BU has not done enough to inform neighbors about the project, failing to properly advertise meetings about a lab that would play a key role in the defense against terrorism.

"I think what they're doing is minimal, barely meeting the requirement of community outreach," said Lucky Devlin, a South Boston community activist. She said a meeting BU held with the Andrew Square Civic Association was relatively unknown to South Boston residents since it was not advertised in community papers.

BU officials say they held 13 community meetings attended by 300 people at the Medical Center and in the South End, Dudley, and South Boston. "We will continue to work with the community to discuss why this project is important and beneficial," said Ellen Berlin, spokeswoman for Boston University Medical Center, who added that the protest "says to me we need to keep communicating."

BU announced last February its application to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to build a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory in BU's BioSquare complex in the South End. Staff at the facility would be first responders to a bioterrorist attack, and they would work in high-security labs capable of housing pathogens deemed highly transmissible and deadly.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino supports the proposed lab, saying that it "does not pose any risk to the community and does have the potential for significant community benefit, including prominence for the city," said Michael Kelley, spokesman for the mayor's office.

"The mayor has always said that BU should be available to respond to questions and he thinks that they're doing that," said Kelley. "Many of the folks who are saying they are not having their issues responded to have been at community meetings. There's kind of a contradiction there."

Boston University is one of six known institutions across the country vying for the lucrative biodefense lab, although federal officials will not disclose all candidates. The NIAID expects to make a final decision on who gets the lab in September.

Currently, the United States has three working Biosafety Level 4 facilities, the only labs secure enough to hold the world's deadliest pathogens, according to NIAID's website. The NIAID and other government agencies believe there is a "serious shortage of high-level biocontainment facilities," a shortage that could hinder development of new treatments and vaccines.

In June, a dozen community groups and local politicians led by Alternatives for Community & Environment sent a letter to NIAID, concerned with the public health threat posed by the facility.

As part of its application, BU must demonstrate "community acceptance" of the project before construction begins, according to NIAID's request for applications.

But some South End neighborhood groups, whose residents live closest to the proposed the facility, say BU never contacted them.

Dan Loughlin, vice president of the South End Neighborhood Coalition and coordinator for the Union Park Street Neighborhood Association, said BU contacted neither group about the lab.

But Loughlin supports the new facility, which he hopes will infuse the neighborhood with needed capital and jobs. "I think people really need to shift their focus and stop this knee-jerk reaction," said Loughlin, who believes "the best scientists in the world" will work at the new lab. "This is not some rinky dink proposal."

Loughlin wants BU to invest in his community along with the lab and hopes parks, street lights, and housing developments can stand next to security fences and guards.

But BU's promise of 1,960 new jobs, 1,300 of which will be for construction, gives little assurance to South Boston's Devlin. "Who are the jobs for? These are short-lived construction jobs," said Devlin. "Are they for the layperson? You know what? We can get jobs cleaning floors anywhere."