NIH RESIDENTS' ISOLATION, IRE HEIGHTENED



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Last Updated

29 Jul 2003

Source: Washington Post, July 27, 2003

As NIH Increases Security, Residents' Isolation, Ire Heightened

By Matthew Mosk, Washington Post Staff Writer

For Bethesda residents, the National Institutes of Health always had been more than just a huge government agency in their midst.

With access to its sprawling, grassy 327-acre campus, they enjoyed what amounted to a warm, town-gown relationship with the renowned research center. There were concerts and big-screen summer movies on the grass. Dog-walkers and soccer players had room to roam. The public parked for free each night in spacious lots near the Metro station. And every Friday, Andrew Beardall, aka "Lobster Man," sold not only lobsters but steamer clams, fresh from Maine, from the back of a truck.

But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the security clampdown that followed, has ended this easy coexistence. In its place is resentment and fear. The campus is tightly guarded, with a nine-foot-high, cast-iron security fence going up around the perimeter. The movies, concerts and parking are gone. Even Lobster Man has been banished.

Most worrisome are plans for a new bio-terror research lab, where the mere presence of anthrax, smallpox and other harmful pathogens has evoked a specter of danger that runs counter to the campus's longtime image as a benign place for thinkers and cures.

"Everything changed after 9/11," said Bethesda resident Virginia A. Miller, who helps chair a liaison committee of NIH neighbors. "This was once a very friendly relationship. But now, people are distressed. People have told me they're going to sell their houses. They're very frustrated by what's been lost, and frightened by what's coming."

The first signs of change emerged less than a week after the terror attacks. Security guards began asking the facility's 17,000 employees to show identification as they drove onto the campus. The 75-officer NIH police force started working 12-hour shifts and six-day weeks, and it quickly was supplemented with guards from a private security service.

"We really had to ratchet to a whole different level," said Stephen Ficca, NIH associate director for research, who headed the security effort.

An e-mail circulated among institute scientists announcing an end to a number of the popular programs that not only served the employees and the public, but also patients staying on campus for medical trials or treatment. Some of the theater programs and music concerts dated to the 1940s, when scientists were looking for social outlets to improve the quality of life outside the lab.

"These were things the community and the employees looked forward to each year," said Randolph R. Schools, president of the Recreation and Welfare Association at NIH. "They weren't just for convenience. They brought the scientific community together. The theater, the orchestra, all those groups worked together to make NIH a campuslike setting."

Concerns about the free flow of people through the campus also meant that vendors who sold jewelry and fresh produce were no longer feasible. The lobster sales, which started in 1984 and became a Friday afternoon institution, stopped the week after the attacks. Beardall, who joined the lobster venture in 1986, when he was 14, was perplexed.

"I wish I could actually understand their decision," he said from his new location, a few blocks down Old Georgetown Road. "We were told this was a security risk. They've had shoe bombers -- I guess next in line is salmon bombers."

What stung, Beardall said, is that no one from NIH bothered to explain the decision. "But I do understand," he added. "They have an enormous biomedical complex, and I'm sure the guy who sells lobsters is not very high on their agenda."

In the months after the attacks, there were mixed feelings about the security upgrades.

On campus, some grumbled about having to carry identification cards and submit their cars to searches at security stations set up under canopies near each major entrance.

Until recently, the most ire was reserved for the decision to enclose the campus with a fence similar to the one that encloses the White House, an idea that actually had been under discussion before the attacks but which took on new urgency in the aftermath. For many NIH neighbors, the fence would mean they no longer could cut across the campus each morning to reach the Medical Center Metro station.

It was, in the view of many, "an extreme overreaction," said Montgomery County Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), who called it such in a Dec. 17 letter asking Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to intervene. Why, some said, would NIH believe this tranquil facility would ever make the list of targets for a terrorist attack?

Ficca said many in the upper ranks at NIH had the same question.

"We always thought NIH is benign, [that] we're just trying to help people and nobody would want to come in here," he said. "But that's not the case. We are a government installation. I mean, what made the Murrah Building in Oklahoma a target?"

Put in that context, many others have seemed to accept the need for heightened security.

Ralph E. Schofer, 72, an engineer who has lived near the campus since 1976, said no one wanted the fence but that most have accepted they really have no choice.

"Times have changed. The world has changed," Schofer said. "You don't want intruders to come in there with whatever motives."

Tom Gallagher, director of the NIH Office of Community Liaison, said much has been done to try to reduce the impact that the fence invariably will have on commuters. For instance, NIH has constructed a meandering, lighted walking path that circles just outside the perimeter fence, providing a more direct route from Suburban Hospital to the Metro station than will be available along public streets. And still under discussion are plans for a shuttle service.

But on West Cedar Lane, where the fence runs close to the street, the shady canopy of cottonwood, sycamore, white birch and hard maple trees on the grounds serves as an alluring reminder of what is out of reach.

On a recent drive along the campus perimeter, Gallagher paused to admire the woods, saying he understood the public's sense of loss.

"You want to keep some semblance of the life that was, but that's no longer the world we live in," he said.

The terrorist attacks also have dramatically changed the public's views about biological threats. Plans for construction of a new bio-defense lab had been on the books without a hint of protest since 1995. But when word spread that NIH was getting ready to build it, there was an outcry.

"People are concerned," Schofer said. "They're concerned about it, they don't want it there -- it's too close to a residential area."

Miller said she was one of many who found rich irony in NIH's position.

"If NIH thinks their security is so threatened that they can't have neighbors walk through the campus, then it certainly seems unwise to put these agents on the very same campus, and stick them on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in the county," she said.

Members of the neighborhood advisory committee pressed NIH to consider a less-populated location for the lab. Schofer suggested Montana. Miller offered Fort Dietrich, where similar work has been conducted.

Gallagher said none of those ideas made sense to NIH scientists, who need their offices to be close to the labs where their research is conducted.

What everyone will agree to, though, is that the debate is driving the wedge even deeper between NIH and its neighbors.

For longtime NIH officials such as Schools, who made a career of fostering harmony with the community, the new relationship is being stomached as a sad reality of changing times.

"I just keep pushing on," he said. "I have a mission. I try to help people. A lot of us understand why it had to change. I'm not going to get depressed about it."