Hundreds turn out for BioLab hearing

South End NewsIssue

September 25, 2007

by Justin Rice 

Three descendants of the late author and environmentalist Edward Abbey stood outside Faneuil Hall Thursday evening wearing stickers that read “NO BIO TERROR LAB in BOSTON” and holding signs that read “Chernobyl, Bhopal, Boston.”

Known as the “Thoreau of the American West,” Abbey’s works include The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel that’s been cited as inspiration by radical environmental groups. Though not nearly as extreme as their famous relative, the Abbey’s from Revere were attending a public hearing held by the National Institute of Health (N.I.H.) in order to express their opposition to the construction of the BioSafety Level 4 Lab (BioLab). The hearing was held to give the public an opportunity to comment on an Aug. 23 report from N.I.H. finding that the BioLab posed no risks to the South End neighborhood in which it’s being built. The 200-plus page report, “Supplementary Risk Assessments And Site Suitability Analysis for the National Emerging Disease Laboratory Boston University Medical Center,” concluded that of three sites considered for the BioLab (Tyngsborough, Peterborough and the South End), the Boston site was the safest: “[U]nder realistic conditions, infectious diseases would not occur in the communities as a result of an accident” in the BioLab.

“We’re a couple times removed [from Abbey],” Lou Abbey said, standing next to his wife, Christine, and daughter, Hannah. “Ed would be right out here with a sign telling people ‘You better defend yourself against your own government.’

“We’re concerned our government would put this in a community of 100,000 people, most of whom don’t have the capacity to move if they wanted to. Many people say, ‘If you don’t like it move.’ Well most of the people can’t afford to move. That’s the thing I think is the worst injustice — hopefully a few people here will say ‘No.’”

The Abbey’s were among hundreds of BioLab protesters at the meeting who are unconvinced by the report’s findings that the BioLab does not present a threat to the neighborhood’s safety. In fact, Dr. Deborah Wilson, the N.I.H. Director of Occupational Safety and Health, was nearly shouted down when presenting findings that the lab would not have been safer if it was built in a less congested area.

Known as the Bio-Terror Lab to opponents and Bio-Safety Lab to its proponents, the Albany Street facility will allow scientists to study some of the deadliest infectious agents in the world as early as next year.

Wilson said the BioLab will give scientists the capacity to better track infectious diseases. “This model would tell us when an infection would occur, where it would occur, who would be affected and what the outcome would be,” Wilson said, before being interrupted by someone asking her if she lives in Boston.

“Get to the point,” someone else shouted as Wilson tried to explain how researchers simulated an outbreak that might occur during the daytime, nighttime and hours spent outside work and home.

“When do we get to talk? That’s what we came for,” another person shouted to the delight of the entire hall, prompting applause from the crowed that stopped Wilson in her tracks.

“Ladies and gentleman I’d be glad to present the data,” Wilson said sharply, but calmly. She continued, enduring one more interruption before speeding through the remainder of her PowerPoint presentation. “Thank you all for your attention.”

With that, the comment period began and the public rushed to line up at the microphone. Speakers were each given three minutes to ask a question or state a point (a large digital clock that could be seen by everyone in the hall tracked the time), but an N.I.H. official frequently had to ask speakers to wrap up.

State Rep. Gloria Fox (D-Roxbury), who has been a vocal opponent of the BioLab disputed the N.I.H. report’s findings. “We challenge any report by government or any institution that says a Level-4 BioLab sitting in the heart of the city is a good thing. This is not only going to affect Roxbury and the South End, it’s going to affect all of the city of Boston. We should all be afraid, be afraid, very afraid,” she said.

Glen Berkowitz, who chairs the Community Liaison Committee established by the Boston University Medical Center (B.U.M.C.), said he doesn’t oppose the plan, even though he lives 1400 feet from the construction site.

“Many of those opposed to the BioLab make it very difficult for those of us who either support or feel neutral to focus on objective facts rather than scare tactics and fear mongering,” he said. “As the moderator of the C.L.C.’s Educational Forums, I can assure the sincere, and substantive dialogue between BioLab officials and those opponents. I invite all of those in attendance tonight to join us on October 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Cathedral High School’s new gymnasium on Washington Street in the South End.”

Berkowitz’s criticisms of the BioLab opponents were met with some grumbling, but when he referenced Nelson Mandela when inviting BioLab opponents to engage in a more substantive dialogue with B.U.M.C. officials, angry noise from the crowd made it difficult to hear the rest of his comments. 

“I came across a poster put up by some of the opponents encouraging turnout here tonight,” he said. “That poster depicted a person wearing an Orwellian gas mask. Personally, I don’t think such speculative scare tactics are what our community needs. And I don’t think our community needs to hear more about unfounded conspiracy theories stemming back to the infamous tularemia incident of three years ago. What we need to do collectively is get our facts straight.

“Nelson Mandela once said: ‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.’ I invite opponents here tonight to do just that, and join us at the next BioLab Educational Forum to take place 11 days from now.”

David Mundel, a South End resident and critic of the BioLab, described the Aug. 24 report as “inadequate and negligent.” He said that the report contains no assessment of which event is most likely to result in a “worst case risk” and added that the summary of the recent report notes that “the design and operations of the BSL-4 laboratory result in a negligible risk of an infectious agent (being released) into the surrounding community.” Mundel quoted the BioLab’s newly appointed director, Dr. Thomas Geisbert, who last week told South End News, “there’s never zero risk.”

“For the N.I.H. to report that there is no risk is simply negligent,” Mundel said.

But not every community member who spoke was opposed to the lab. “I’d like to think that what is done in the BioLab is for the good of mankind,” Bruce Bickerstaff of Roxbury said. “I’d rather be able to say, ‘We have it’ and not be able to say, ‘We need it.’”

After his public comments, Bickerstaff chided some of the lab’s opponents. “The point is we’re here to come to some kind of understanding,” he said outside Faneuil Hall. “Why would you disallow someone to present information? You should allow yourself to absorb the information and than each one of us can make an assessment after the fact. Not one of those persons would’ve liked to be shouted down if they got up there.”

Michael Cohen, a B.U. mathematics professor, wondered why the lab couldn’t be built on an island in Boston Harbor in on Plum Island.

“The fact that that is not being done and people don’t to do that proves it’s not about safety at all,” he said. “It’s about politics and money.”

Another B.U. professor, H. Patricia Hynes, who directs the School of Public Health’s Urban Environmental Health Initiative, noted that the N.I.H. report doesn’t account for an outside attack on the BioLab, such as a truck bomb similar to the one that blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building 15 years ago.

“This is not science fiction,” said Hynes, who works at 715 Albany St. near the site of the BioLab. “Any risk assessment has to consider threats coming from the outside in.”

The line to speak still stretched down the aisle at 9 p.m., the cutoff point to enter the line. Those already in line, however, were permitted, for nearly another hour, to make their remarks. Written comments may also be submitted until Nov. 12. Still, as unruly as the community meeting process might get before the end of the comment period, BioLab opponents have yet to resort to Edward Abby-style sabotage — throwing a monkey wrench into the 70-percent completed construction site on Albany Street.

“Violence is not the answer,” Hannah Abbey said before heading into Thursday night’s meeting.

The next Community Liaison Committee-sponsored BioLab forum will be held Mon., Oct. 1, in the Cathedral High School gym, and will discuss “What are the Ins and Outs of Transportation?” It will begin at 6:30 p.m., rather than the regular time of 7 p.m. to allow additional time for questions.