After controversy and lawsuits kept the $200 million Boston University biomedical laboratory empty since construction finished in 2008, the disputed facility may open for lower-level research this fall.
BU officials asked the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs for a waiver last month to conduct research on less hazardous materials while the National Institutes of Health oversee a risk assessment of the Biosafety Level-4 laboratories.
For years, Roxbury residents and BU students have collaborated against the construction of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, which would develop diagnostics to fight infectious diseases, such as Ebola, smallpox and the plague.
While BU is not abandoning plans to open sections of the lab for Level-4 research, opening the lab for Level-2 research is the logical step while lawsuits against researching more dangerous pathogens continue, said Stephen Burgay, senior vice president for external affairs at BU.
“The building is done, there is excellent lab space and the faculty and students are ready to do the work,” Burgay said in a phone interview on Monday. “It makes sense to put lower level research to use so researchers and students can get additional grants at same type of lab space that exists across the street.”
There are currently two operating Level-2 and 3 labs on the BU campus and many more throughout Massachusetts, Burgay said, and the controversy surrounding the lab dealt with opening the first Level-4 laboratory in the state.
If the EOEA approves the waiver later this month, the university plans to experiment with bacteria that cause tuberculosis, he said.
By obtaining the waiver, BU could also apply for permits to allow level-3 research, according to a press release, but researchers would not allow any level-3 research until the risk assessment is completed.
Klare Allen, the community organizer of Safety Net, a Roxbury group who opposes the lab, said the group is celebrating their success in stopping the Level-4 lab from operating for nine years, but will still make sure that BU safely operates the lower-levels.
“I don’t trust them, they’ve had too many accidents,” Allen said. “You have to go with your gut and fight against what you know is wrong.”
Allen said the group’s next step will be to fight the permits allowing level-3 research, which requires more protective practices and deals with highly contagious pathogens.
“This isn’t take some aspirin and you’re fine tomorrow,” Allen said. “This is costly and we can’t afford s— if we get exposed.”
If BU comes back with the final risk assessment of the Level-4 lab, Safety Net will be there to respond, according to a Safety Net press release.
“They’ve been making accidents for the last nine years,” she said. “Would you trust them? No. That’s why we’re not going to stop fighting this.”
BU’s on-campus group— STOP the BU Bio-Terror Lab Coalition— will continue to work alongside Safety Net to fight the lab.
Ian Chinich, a member of the anti-Biolab coalition, said that the group will continue to organize educational “teach-ins,” banner drops and guerrilla protests to inform students about the dangers the lab poses.
“The fight isn’t over yet,” said Chinich, a third year PhD student in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We’re going to keep an eye on the university to make sure the Level-4 lab never opens.”