Boston University Denied Request to Operate Hazardous Lab

BU Denied Request to Operate Hazardous Bioterrorism Lab Without Thorough Review of Risk Assessment

Jenny Rushlow

While much of Boston was distracted by the approaching holidays, public health and the environmental justice communities of Roxbury / South End scored a victory last Friday, December 23rd, when Secretary Sullivan issued his final decision to deny BU’s request to begin high level research at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories (NEIDL) until a full risk assessment is reviewed by EOEEA.

This decision brings to a close one chapter in a larger, protracted debate regarding acceptable levels of risk for this project, otherwise known as the BU Biolab. Biodefense research conducted at the lab would bring highly contagious, rare and lethal pathogens, such as ebola, to densely populated urban neighborhoods. Members of local communities have expressed strong opposition to the siting of this facility near their homes and schools.

Meanwhile, BU has failed multiple times to assess and justify the risks associated with the NEIDL as required by state and federal statutes. Their assessments have repeatedly been subject to criticism for the poor quality of their analysis. Despite this, BU requested a waiver to proceed with operating the lab – a request that applied to all proposed research for the NEIDL except that which would occur in Biocontainment Safety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs, including BSL-3 research. CLF and other opponents of the lab strongly opposed this request.

Secretary Sullivan’s final decision denies BU’s request to begin BSL-3 research before a full risk assessment is reviewed by EOEEA. We welcome this decision, and consider it to be a victory for the security of the local community and the integrity of the legal process. As stated in joint comments filed last week, we support this decision for the following reasons:

1) It’s the law. The Secretary’s decision is in line with the Superior Court and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rulings that require the EOEEA to fully review risk assessments for BSL-3 and 4 research at the NEIDL.

2) It’s too risky not to understand the risks. Careful review and oversight of this facility is necessary given BU’s poor track record of reporting accidents in a timely manner and communicating with the community on this issue.

3) The public not only should participate – they are required to. The EOEEA Environmental Justice Policy requires enhanced state review and public participation opportunities because of the proposed facility’s location in Roxbury/South End.

What You Can Do:

NIH’s Blue Ribbon Panel will come to Hibernia Hall in Roxbury on February 16th to hold a public meeting and hear comments on NIH’s draft risk assessment for the NEIDL. CLF will post the time and other details for the public meeting here when they become available. Mark your calendar and join CLF and its partners in seeking to ensure that this facility does not introduce unnecessary risk to an already overburdened environmental justice community.

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