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News :: Environment : Organizing : Politics : Race : Social Welfare : Technology
Tensions rise as BU inches closer to a Biosafety Lab in Boston
11 Nov 2004
Faneuil Hall was home to a public forum Wednesday night on the biosafety lab that is currently scheduled to be built in the South End's Boston Medical Center. The forum opened with a ten minute overview presented by Boston University officials, including Boston University Senior Vice President Richard J. Towle, which was interrupted by a woman demanding that the lab be referred to as the "proposed lab." After the somewhat contentious presentation was over, the hall became open for Bostonians to voice approval or disapproval about the proposed lab. Advocates and concerned citizens voiced their opinions, but drew no real conclusions, besides an agreement that the conflict is far from over. Attendees argued passionately for an open question and answer session with both sides of the conflict, and "more information and more respect" to be shown by Boston University towards concerned Boston residents.

Ten to fifteen of the people in attendance silently held up signs that read "Bioterrorism is not safe!" as the camera recording the event laid its lens upon them. A common concern voiced was that the proposed lab would be devoted to bio-terror, not public health. Those opposed felt that this lab was not going to be used as an advanced research center, but rather as a puppet for Homeland Security and the Bush Administration. Opponents argued that since the National Institute of Health (NIH) was given a counter-terrorism mandate for their site in Boston, the lab would be under control of the government when it came to what the lab would research and what information would be released. These citizens were concerned that the residents would be left in the dark when it came to information from the lab. As one woman put it, the lab is just a continuation of the country’s "policy of empire," which includes the unjustified war in Iraq. This remark drew a huge reaction from the crowd.

Some people were displeased with the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which showed that the worst case scenario of the lab would still cause minimal death and could be easily stopped. Scientists arguing against the lab stated their belief that the report’s worst case scenario was too simplistic and linear, and a real worse case scenario could only "be the work of Steven King." Other opponents did not see how this lab would even protect us from terrorist attacks if any were to occur. Since biological weapons like anthrax and the plague are hard to produce, the lab would be indirectly providing a source for terrorists to exploit. As one dumb-founded man put it, the lab would place America in "an arms-race against [itself]."

Some Bostonians voiced their support for the lab, echoing claims from BU's $27,000 public relations campaign that the lab would improve the economy, develop life-saving vaccines, and provide jobs and opportunities for local residents and students all over Boston. Challenging the logic behind some concerns about having a lab that studies diseases so close to a large, urban center, one women argued that such research has been conducted before without much problem, and anyone who is concerned is "a day late and a dollar short." Other supporters said that Boston is the perfect place for such a research lab because of the multitude of brilliant scientists in the Boston area. A BU scientist stated that he is the only person who should genuinely be worried about the safety of such a lab, because his office would only be "150 feet away from the lab." He believed that the potential scientific breakthroughs far out weigh the slim chance of an accident occurring.

An important issue that was somewhat overlooked was the socio-economic background of the proposed area of the biosafety lab. Using the 2000 census, Professor Patricia Hynes of Boston University showed in a report this April that the proposed neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury are "the neighborhoods most burdened with environmental illness, social vulnerability, and disparities of health and income." One woman did bring up the fact that these neighborhoods are full of people of color, but that is as far as the issue went. Clearly the idea of environmental racism took a back seat to people’s concerns about the safety and true purpose of the lab.

This work is in the public domain