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Mass. gives BU biolab preliminary approval to operate

After nine years shrouded by controversy and lawsuits, state officials have granted preliminary approval for Boston University to open its biosafety laboratory in Roxbury for lower-level research.

The “utilization of BSL-2 laboratory research space would result in an undue hardship for the proponent and would not serve to avoid or minimize Danger to the Environment,” according to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs report, dated Dec. 2.

The potential environmental impacts of the Level-2 laboratory are “insignificant,” the EOEEA report added, as there are other laboratories throughout the state conducting this level of research.

In a statement sent to The Daily Free Press on Monday, BU officials said they are pleased with the preliminary decision.

An approval will allow BU to gain permits for the 192,000 sq. foot National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory located in Roxbury near the BU School of Medicine— a high security lab which sat empty, due to legal debate and regulatory reviews, since 2008.

The lab plans to develop diagnostics to fight infectious diseases such as Ebola, smallpox and the plague if the proposed Level-4 research is approved.

In August of this year BU officials asked the state EOEEA for a waiver to conduct Level-2 research while the National Institutes of Health oversee a risk assessment of the Biosafety Level-4 laboratories, according to a Sept. 7 DFP article.

The lab is expected to open in early 2012 and will begin by researching Tuberculosis and performing other experiments approved for NEIDL Level-2 laboratories.

In the statement, BU said it “understand EOEEA’s decision to wait for additional information before granting approval for BSL-3 research and we will renew our request once the data is available.”

From Dec. 7 to Dec. 21 the EEOEA will hold a 14-day public comment period and a final decision is expected at the end of the month.

Klare Allen, the community organizer of Safety Net, a Roxbury group who opposes the lab, said she was surprised to hear the state had made its decision. She said that neither she nor the lawyers representing the group’s lawsuits against the biolab were notified about the approval.

“With Level-2 approval BU is not able to work with deadly diseases, which is where the concern was,” Allen said in a phone interview. “But, we still are greatly concerned. BU doesn’t have a great record with reporting biolab accidents and we need to keep them accountable.”

Safety Net will continue to “push against the man” and prevent the lab from conducting Level-3 and-4 research, Allen said. But, she said, the “battle won’t be won” without support from community members and students.

“Some people see this as a campaign,” Allen said, “other people see it as a life and death issue—that’s what we see this as.”

2 Comments

  1. I hope this facility becomes completely utilized. It seems a shame to wast research space when there are so many infectious diseases that need to be researched. What the people of Roxbury discount is the strong safety conditions at the high level bio safety labs. It is highly unlikely that anything bad will happen at this facility and there is a huge benefit being located in a city due to labor pooling. This is especially true of Boston due to the large number of universities in the area. Considering the high level of unemployment in the area, the facility opening will be a boon to the revitalization of the area both through incomes that will be generated directly by the lab and through the economic spillover effects on local businesses.

    • Except this lab won’t do a single thing for the community except put it potentially at risk of exposure to incurable infectious diseases that do not exist as legitimate public health concerns in the US. People here don’t die of the diseases they’ll be dealing with and given that this is a lab and not a tourist attraction, the community won’t experience a revitalization, unless by revitalization, you mean gentrification, which won’t help the community, it’ll just push them out into different areas. Even so, since the people working in the lab will be those who’ve had access to highly expensive educations, they’re not going to be employing many people from Roxbury. Also, if you know anything about the risk assessments they’ve done, they’re completely inadequate, only covering scenarios that are highly unlikely (such as a catastrophic earthquake) while ignoring the more likely risks of something happening while these pathogens are in transit on highways (which would happen 2-3 times per month) or that some one became unknowingly contaminated and spread it, as was the case with SARS a few years ago.

      BU has continuously ignored community concerns and failed at every turn to prove the lab’s safety or their preparedness to respond to risks. The fact that this is happening in a community that can’t afford health care and is disproportionately populated in relation to other BSL-4 labs in the country says a lot for how little BU cares about the Boston community, especially those who are poor or of color. And let’s not forget that suspicions of this lab being used for biodefense purposes over public health research are very real, given the baseless emphasis on biodefense during the War on Terror. Our student papers have reported on this stuff (not very effectively), but apparently it’s not reaching the student body if people think this will have any positive effect whatsoever.