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News :: Environment : Organizing : Politics : Technology
Population Density Poses Challenge to Construction of BU Bioterror Lab
02 Mar 2005
The New Year has brought some new bumps in Boston University Medical Center’s plan to construct their new security level 4 bio-containment safety laboratory (BSL4) on the bustling border where the South End and Roxbury meet. BU is planning to begin construction on the lab, which would enable researchers to investigate weaponized strains of the most deadly biological agents known to man, this summer.

And until recently, the year and a half of debate over the hotly contested plan certainly seemed to be balancing in BU’s favor. Backed by key players in Commonwealth politics, the project coasted through city and state permit and approval processes. Rose Arruda of the Roxbury community organization Safety Net told the Boston Globe on February 5 that since the group had begun their opposition to the lab, “People just ignored us. They’d say, ‘You are just a bunch of crazy activists.’”

But then everything went to hell at the BUMC press office in late January when the Boston Globe revealed that researchers had been doing everything short of seasoning the lunch meat in the cafeterias at their BSL2 labs with an infectious strain of the deadly disease tularemia. According to an article that ran in the Boston Globe on January 20th, the University had, on the previous day, “confirmed that on October 28 test results showed that researchers who had thought they were working with a harmless variety of the bacteria tularemia instead had been working with material that appeared to be contaminated and might have caused illnesses in three researchers.” The article stated that Massachusetts State law required BU to report their suspicions that infections had occurred within 24 hours.

It took the university 11 days.
The circumstances surrounding the case are confusing. According to a February 5 Globe article, two of the researchers tested positive for exposure in August, but BU did not begin to investigate until October when a third researcher fell ill. “The tularemia research began in the spring without the approval of a BU committee that is supposed to ensure the safe handling of such bacteria,” The Globe reported. The incident has lead to the resignation of BUMC’s head of infectious diseases, Dr. Peter Rice, who was conducting the search for a vaccine for the disease.

The Globe also reported that one implication of the tularemia scandal is it brings to light the fact that BUMC lied in the environmental impact report it was required to submit to begin construction on the BSL4 lab. According to a January 21 article, BUMC “touted the safety record of its existing laboratories, saying in written environmental impact statements in July and August that no “laboratory-acquired infections” of workers had occurred in the last decade.”

As of January 21, the University had not amended its report. State Environmental Affairs spokesman Joseph O’Keefe told the Globe that the state was waiting for BU’s amendment before it decided whether to reopen its review.

The critical attention that BU’s biological research efforts have been garnering is fine with Klare Allen of Safety Net. According to Allen the scandal has made the potential danger of the lab “a reality for more people. It challenged the perception that BU’s record is clean.”

A report published by Roxbury based Alternatives For Community and The Environment (ACE), available at, counts 51 environmental, health, and safety violations committed by BUMC between 2000 and 2004, including “26 discharges of waste mercury above allowable limits into the sewer.”

The Tularemia infections, however, have focused some local attention on the broader issues of the competence of civilian researchers to conduct high security research in a largely unregulated environment. An article by Michael Scherer in the March/April 2004 issue of Mother Jones magazine outlines some of the issues that Bostonians are starting to grapple with.

$10 billion in federal funding has been redirected “toward projects related to biological weapons,” since 9/11. “The Pentagon’s budget for chemical and biological defense has doubled” And, “universities are receiving government funding to build high-tech labs equipped to handle deadly infectious organisms.” Of serious concern in this Herculean push to develop a comprehensive understanding of all things weaponized-biological is that, “With poor oversight, government funded scientists could actually be paving the way for the next generation of killer germs- and given the explosion of research, there is no way to keep track of what is being done.”

In 2003, for example Mark Buller shocked public health officials when he announced that in the course of his research to “defeat known techniques for making pox viruses more deadly” he himself had manufactured a more deadly form of mousepox. Sherer quoted one microbiologist describing the situation as “like the National Institute of Health was funding a research and development arm of Al Qaeda.” Even Buller himself admitted with its current popularity and lack of safeguards there is a real chance that biodefense research could run amok. “When you have thrown a lot of money at it, people start to think very hard about what is possible, losing sight of what is practical,” Buller said.

Boston College professor and Senior Fellow at the MIT Security Studies Program, Jeanne Guillemin, expressed similar concerns in a January 31 op-ed piece in the Boston Globe. She described what she sees as distressing divergent trends in the new wave of research on biological agents. “Lack of federal government oversight,” she wrote, and increasing secrecy on the part of many government agencies bode ill for accountability on the one hand, and on the other hand, civilian researchers have no idea what they are getting themselves into. “The diseases caused by select agents (tularemia, anthrax smallpox, plague, and hemmoragic fevers for starters) occur so rarely that researchers can underestimate their danger…Accidental spills, mechanical breakdowns, and the tendency to ignore regulations are endemic to laboratory work. On-the-job training with exotic pathogens increases these hazards.”

BU’s glibness regarding these concerns has frustrated Guillemin from the beginning, “In its case to the authorities, BU Medical Center argued that a potential release of anthrax spores poses ‘zero risk’ to the local community, an assertion that flies in the face of the facts.” Indeed, since the recent outbreak, BU representatives have made some statements that show a startling disregard for reality. On January 21 BU spokeswoman Ellen Berlin told the Globe that the infection of its researchers “doesn’t change the stellar safety record we have.”

According to a suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of 10 Roxbury residents and members of Safety Net, the University even glossed over some important details in the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) it was required to submit to the state.

On January 12 Attorney Douglas Wilkins filed charges against BUMC along with Boston University proper, The Boston Redevelopment Authority and a host of other city and state departments. The suit contends that BU and BUMC submitted an “incorrect and incomplete Final Environmental Impact Report.” The plaintiffs contend that the report “included an inaccurate worst case release scenario,” underestimating the death toll that would result from a release of the pathogens being studied in the lab.

When asked about the Safety Net case against BUMC, Gina DiGrazio, director of media relations at the center responded that the sum total of BU’s response to the charges is, “they are completely without merit.”

Count 91 of the complaint reads that BU’s approved FEIR, “Fails to include site specific analysis, fails to consider the full environmental impact of a release, and fails to analyze accidental or intentional release of a toxic biological agent that may be present in the laboratory and that, unlike anthrax, is highly contagious.” The suit also claims that the FEIR fails to present a worst case scenario for the release of biological agents in transit to the university.

According to an August 8 article from, packages containing pathogens, per federal regulations, must be contained in triple layer packaging, but “are transported by conventional services such as FedEx, DHL, and the USPS.” BU will be receiving 2 or 3 of these deliveries a month. And while this system works all right, there have been some precarious incidents. A package containing West Nile virus infected bird innards exploded at a FedEx depot in Columbus. In June 2005, due to a shipping error, eight researchers were accidentally exposed to live anthrax at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute.

As Allen, who is one of the plaintiffs in the case, explained it, “The viruses will come through Logan airport and it is against the law to use the tunnels to get them from Logan to the South End, so BU said they would take them through different neighborhoods, but they did not acknowledge the danger that poses.”

In their formal comments on the FEIR, submitted to the Office of Environmental Affairs on November 5, 2004 Safety Net pointed out that BU failed to outline specific routes for the transportation of deadly viruses. Since “the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority prohibits the transport of hazardous materials in all its tunnels, including the tunnel under the Prudential Center, and the Central Artery, Callahan, Sumner, and Ted Williams tunnels,” Safety Net concluded that hazardous materials will be shipped primarily on frontage roads. These roads abut local neighborhoods, providing access to the interstate system. They are commonly utilized by both local and highway traffic.

According to Wilkins, “There is a clear violation of full disclosure under environmental laws. Once a full disclosure is made, we feel confident the court will see that this is a terrible location for the lab and that they should find a new site far away from densely populated urban areas.”

Various city and state permit granting agencies named in the suit are being sued for “taking numerous actions” that were beyond their authority until “the MEPA process was complete”

When asked whether community safety concerns had been taken into account as part of the NIAID process of approving the construction of a BSL4 lab in downtown Boston, Rona Hirshberg, Senior Program Officer of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases said that, “Among many factors that came into play was the site. The number one criteria for all of our decisions about what projects would get funded,” she added, “was the scientific and technical merit of the application.”

She went on to confidently state that “these labs are very safe, and since these labs are very safe, it is safe to build one in an urban environment.” Siting a December 2000 memo regarding the construction of a similar lab in rural Montana, the ACE web site points out that “The NIAID itself has acknowledged the risk of releases from BSL4 labs.” The memo states that, “The location of the laboratory reduces the possibility that an accidental release of a biosafety level-4 organism would lead to a major public health disaster.”

To date BU has refused to release the full text of its grant application to the NIAID.

Another concern raised on the ACE web-site is that it is, as yet, unclear who would control the lab. The NIAID Request For Proposals and Applications, under which the BU lab was funded states that “The facility must be utilized for biomedical research purposes as determined by NIAID program needs for the next 20 years.”

When asked who would determine what research went on in the lab DiGrazio mentioned that she had been told there would be a committee that would evaluate all of the research but that she did not know who would be on the committee. When asked whether the NIAID would be directing the research, she said, "I am being told that BU will be the determiner of what is going on." When asked whether she meant that BU would be directing the research, she said, "I hate to split hairs, but that is what I am being told,"

DiGrazio recommended that further questions be directed to Unfortunately, there was no further information on any of the topics we discussed on the web-site.

Hirshberg seemed aware enough of the NIAID's role in determining research priorities at the lab to repeat the assurance that "the NIAID does not fund classified research, and the intended purpose of the lab is not to conduct classified research." When asked whether that policy might change over the next 20 years, she replied "If I could tell the future, I would be in the stock market,"

As the Council for Responsible Genetics points on their bioterror fact sheet, "Federally-funded research on biological weapons is marred by a history of secrecy and misinformation." And federal policy can change a lot over 20 years. It was less than 20 years ago when, in the early 90's, the Department of Defense discontinued its policy of providing an annual report to congress "explaining the nature and extent of its biological research." Since then, "there has been growing concern about the potential for offensive research in U.S. laboratories."

The NIAID is ultimately under the control of the Department of Homeland Security and it appears that Title 3 of the Homeland Security Act of 2003 gives The Secretary of Homeland Security ultimate authority over “infectious disease defense research.”

In parting Hirshberg said that she hopes that Bostonians, “Take advantage of the outreach effort BU is conducting to learn about the lab, what kind of research will be conducted and how safe it will be.”

According to Allen, “The reason we are in the situation we are in right now is that people have been listening to BU rather than to Safety Net and the coalition.” The reason there is so much controversy now, Allen said, is that the NIAID and state agencies have been, “taking BU at their word regarding their safety record.” And city and state officials have been taking BU at their word when they have said they will be “responsible for the facility, and for how information will get out to the public if something were to happen.”

Safety Net is currently working with members of City Council, including Chuck Turner, Maura Hennigan and Felix Arroyo, to pass a city ordinance that would prohibit, ”activities involving laboratory research Biosafety Level 4,” within the City of Boston. The proposed ordinance was filed on May 20, 2003.

Additionally, state representative Gloria Fox has submitted a bill that would, “create a comprehensive regulatory program for BSL4 laboratories,” that includes strict guidelines for the construction and operation of BSL4 laboratories in Massachusetts and would set up a “community oversight board for each laboratory to help insure transparency of operations and research.”

Fox said that, thanks to widespread and coordinated community support for the bill, which will come up for vote before the end of the legislative session in July, “I feel more confident about it than I do about many things we try to do,”

for more information on the campaign to stop the BU Bioterror Lab, check out ace–

This work is in the public domain.
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Re: Population Density Poses Challenge to Construction of BU Bioterror Lab
06 Mar 2005
Given that the post 9-11 anthrax mailings contained a strain from a U.S. military bio lab, and the fact that it remains an "unsolved" case, shouldn't we all be more than a little worried about this kind of thing??
Great Article!!!
07 Mar 2005
Its nice to have the whole story laid out like this.
Re: Population Density Poses Challenge to Construction of BU Bioterror Lab
09 Mar 2005
This is a great article! The depth of research made it well worth my time to stop by this website. I'll be checking back again soon to see what other local news stories you've posted. Keep up the good work David!
Tim Ledwith is a Filthy Hypocrite
10 Mar 2005
Tim said I am not allowed to say:

"I think they should build the bioweapons lab. Then Blacks can get jobs working there and make lots of money. It is possible. And no commute."


Let's have a moment of clarity here:

The hypocrite anarchists at Boston IMC have patronized the black people of Roxbury on numerous occasions by playing the sob story that this proposed facility is an act of environmental racism.

I merely suggest that these same blacks have a high paying job opportunity at this facility, and a spineless twit deletes my comment for being racist.

If you think I am a racist, then say so, you pathetic weakling. Don't be using Blacks as tokens and then say I can't also refer to them. I can have a bunch of blacks over on to the Lucy Parsons Center to laugh at you for being such a socialist!

God you guys are SO hypocritical AND censorial.
Re: Population Density Poses Challenge to Construction of BU Bioterror Lab
11 Mar 2005
Right from the outset, the article is unnecessarily inflamatory. Dubbing the BU laboratory a "BIO TERROR LAB" is designed to suggest that the purpose of the lab is to create biological weapons. Of course, the contrary is true. The purpose of the lab is to develop antidotes to diseases and antidotes to biological weapons that that may be used by our enemies against the civilian populations of the United States. But of course the writers and editors would be against such a program. Who among them can deny that they are against everything that gives the United States the upper hand over those who would want to do us harm? If it is good for America, Indy Media does not like it. I'm sure that the editors will agree that they would prefer to see the United States defeated by our enemies. It was the case during the cold war and nothing seems to have changed. The very one-sided tone of the articles is evidence enough. Add to that the blatant censorship that dissenting opinions are greeted with and you can see that Indy Media is a farce at best. It is heartwarming in a sense though because the quality of Indy Media "journalism" and the apparent fear that they have of dissent is proof to me that Anarchists and leftists will never succeed in their "revolution."
Re: Tim Ledwith is a Filthy Hypocrite
11 Mar 2005
I hid your original post because of the racist undertone behind using "the blacks". I wonder how your band of black hecklers you claim to "have" feel if you said to them that a new McDonalds would be great so you "blacks" can have jobs.
I must admit your whole manner in which you try to insult me is both intriguing and funny. You language to me suggests that the Boston-IMC provides you with a vehicle to express yourself though this meglomaniac character under the psuedonism Zoltar. Which I would never say you were a "weakling" for, you know I realize in the modern era of this hierarchical society we live in the internet provides a great tool for people to pretend to have power status. I can't say I'm not amused by you role-playing, so keep projecting the image of yourself in some fortified command-center sitting in front of your computer on a lion's throne scaring "spineless weaklings"with the threat of sending your band of "black" underlings to carry out your ridiculing. But for the record I'm niether a socialist or someone who frequents the LPC on a regular basis. Though I do think it's the best bookstore in boston. and to Sid why not take a que from Zoltar and spice up your right-wing rhetoric with some overtop dramatism, it's a fitting additive to views and claims which are predicated false pretenses.
11 Mar 2005
I rest my case. Please stop using racism as an excuse for censorship of those with whom you do not agree.
Hypersensitive and false.
11 Mar 2005
"I hid your original post because of the racist undertone behind using "the blacks"."

--You people, and your counterparts in the communist chatrooms and the liberal trolls at the Boston Metro have been real big lately on flipping out over people's "tones, overtones, and undertones."

Your guys use "the blacks" all the time, in your articles and in your meetings. I now this. I have witnessed this. I dont mean the words "the blacks" I mean the blacks as the vitamin or mineral you always appeal to with a sob story or when you are hyper-sensitizing yourselves over otherwise mundane white liberal concerns. You should stop using THE BLACKS as fetish or propaganda tool, or as a mechanism to control thought and speech.

Not only is it obsolete and patronizing (see the book Black Power by Stokely Carmaichael), but it is also naive, since unbeknownst to you, some black people can do genetic engineering!

"I wonder how your band of black hecklers you claim to "have" feel if you said to them that a new McDonalds would be great so you "blacks" can have jobs."

--I never said that. You are now acting out a passive aggressive fantasy. Stop libelling me. Get a grip.

"Your language to me suggests that the Boston-IMC provides you with a vehicle to express yourself though this meglomaniac character under the psuedonism Zoltar."

--And yet Zoltar does not have the power to censor those who believe in free enterprise.

"take a que from Zoltar and spice up your right-wing rhetoric with some overtop dramatism,"

--You may not know it, but believing blacks can get jobs doing genetics in a laboratory is not a right wing belief. You have a strange notion of what constitutes right wing. Furthermore, all of you are consistently overdramatic! Can't I also be empassioned in MY opinion? Further furthermore, there are plenty of black conservatives.
11 Mar 2005
Again, SINCE WHEN is "i don't like your tone of voice" a valid reason to censor people? It is a fair question.
IMC Insults Minorities
12 Mar 2005
I agree with Zoltar on this. I'm sure that none of you are surprised. IMC is constantly patronizing minorities. Just take for instance the story about the Worcester Police. The the BELIEF... is that whenever a black person is arrested or the police use force to arrest him or her, it is because the person is black. You seem never to consider that the reason that the person is arrested is that he was committing a crime or that force was used to subdue him because he was resisting arrest. Antother great exemple is the article about Jeffrey Baez. Jeffrey, according to your author, was targeted by the ploice for "driving while Hispanic." The writer ignores the fact that Baez was in a stolen van, failed to stop when police activated their blue lights and crashed the van into a fence before jumping out of the van and into the path of the cruiser. The author blatantly lied about police reaction - saying that the police failed to call EMS and then calls for socialist revolution so that this sort of thing does not happen again! It is ludicrous that this article was printed in the first place. The Bio Containment lab article is similar. It is inflamatory and anti-intellectual. Zoltar was censored for using the term "blacks." Well...the lab will be built right in the middle of a black neighborhood and will provide jobs within walking distance for residents. Contrary to what Indy Media seems to feel, most blacks do not feel oppressed and want economic prosperity. IMC editors should live by their own values. I don't know what "tone" warrants censorship. My experience is that when the tone is anti radical, or disagrees with Matthew or Tim's positions it gets censored.
you strange people
13 Mar 2005
boston indymedia does not espouse or 'feel' anything. It is a web site with a relatively lucid open publishing policy. I wrote an article about why people, including people who live within walking distance of the proposed 'biosafety' lab, are opposed to the lab. I discussed the issues that folks who are opposed to the lab brought up with the individuals I could get in touch with at BUMC and the NIAID, and the results are published in the article. If there is significant grassroots support for the lab then some folks maybe ought to write an article about it (and the motivation behind it, like checking out what BUMC has to say about the local job creation potential of the project, for starters) instead of wasting their time writing whiny comments.

sincerely, david

ps. I would not comment except for I drink.
Matthew begins to connive
13 Mar 2005
Matthew Williams has already begun to take secret action in retaliation for the successful posting of counter-opinion to the socialist opinion about the Laboratory.

Here is what Matt is saying to the collective:

"Hello all --

We seem to have a couple of trolls going by the names of Zoltar and Sid
who are provoking flamewars, perhaps deliberately. Both Tim and I have
taken the bait--see the features at and
respectively. For the most part, what they're saying either doesn't
violate policy or falls into a gray area. Given the trouble they've
been causing though, I would like to propose that they be classified
under the "disruptive individual" clause of our editorial policy and
all posts by them be hidden, as we've done with other trouble-makers in
the past. Do you all think this makes sense? Or am I reacting too
quickly? Should we let them post a little longer and see if they keep
on provoking flamewars or if these two sets of posts are just

-- Matt


This is by his own admission. Users of Indymedia who merely have an opposing opinion are being targeted for censorship. It is what we have been saying for months on end.
Re: Population Density Poses Challenge to Construction of BU Bioterror Lab
13 Mar 2005
Actually, all I am doing is holding you accountable for the words printed on this site. If that is inflamatory, then you are quite thin skinned. All I am saying most of the time is that THE EMPEROE HAS NO CLOTHES.