The controversy over Boston University’s development of an anti-bioterror laboratory in Boston’s South End exploded this year, earning national headlines as judges, federal agencies and scientific monitors scrutinized the project slated to open next year.
The story started back in 2003, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Boston University a $128 million grant to design and build a biocontainment laboratory, intended to include biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) research space, on Albany Street, adjacent to the university’s medical center. BSL-4 facilities host research on dangerous, exotic diseases like avian influenza and Ebola virus.
Many South End residents and environmental activists oppose the project, known as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), or “the biolab.” They are concerned that bringing such deadly pathogens into a congested urban neighborhood poses an extreme health risk to the area’s population.
Project supporters and health experts have responded by pointing out that in thousands of hours worked in BSL-4 labs, the U.S. has yet to experience a single infection.
In December 2005, NIH published a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the BU biolab, which the agency says “demonstrated that the construction and operation of the NEIDL did not pose a risk” to either the South End community where it will be located or any surrounding communities.
Lawyers representing community opponents filed a federal suit against NIH in May 2006, claiming that NIH awarded BU the grant without conducting required risk assessment, environmental review or site analysis. Three months later, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants agreed, ruling earlier environmental impact assessments inadequate and calling for additional environmental review of the proposed lab.
Following Gants’ instructions, NIH and BU agreed to conduct a more detailed review of the biolab proposal that considered rural and suburban sites.
In the resulting report, released in August, NIH concluded that the laboratory posed no threat to the safety of residents in the surrounding South End neighborhood.
Opponents assailed the NIH report, citing an apparent conflict of interest in the NIH — the organization that gave BU $128 million to construct the biolab — being responsible for reviewing the university’s model.
After the release of the NIH report, a Boston University statement said the agency’s study “confirmed that the Albany Street location is the best and most appropriate site for the NEIDL and that its urban location is as safe or safer than less congested alternatives.”
Still unconvinced, the state ordered a study by a group of independent scientists from the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC released findings in late November that undercut the NIH report, characterizing it as “not sound as credible.”
In its review, the NRC wrote that “the [NIH] draft assessment does not effectively examine highly infectious agents, and therefore is not representative of a worst case scenario.”
The report added that the process used by the NIH “is not transparent, is not complete, and may not address the fundamental concerns of the community, particularly regarding environmental justice.”
Biolab opponents said the NRC review confirmed their beliefs that project developers failed to adequately consider the risks to South End residents.
“That is the point they have been making for four years — is that unless someone gives them an honest analysis, which has not yet occurred, we don’t know,” said Eloise Lawrence, an attorney at the Conversation Law Foundation.
For their part, BU said the NRC’s review was just part of the process.
“We recognize that the [NRC] report states a number of concerns regarding the NIH methodology and analysis and are confident that the NIH will address those issues in its final report,” said a statement issued by BUMC following the NRC report’s release, adding that the Albany Street site “is as safe as or safer than alternative locations.”
Despite the NRC’s negative assessment, Mayor Thomas M. Menino told attendees at a Dec. 11 breakfast hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce he has “no fears about the biolab opening in the next year or so” and that there is “nothing [the city] can’t overcome” to achieve that goal.
Just two days later, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously upheld Gants’ July 2006 ruling, meaning that BU must complete another environmental review of the biolab project and submit it to the state for approval, which could delay the facility’s anticipated opening next year.
For the time being, however, construction continues, with building at least 70 percent complete.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.