Upwards of 100 concerned citizens turned out Thursday night for a public hearing at Roxbury Community College to voice their disapproval and anger over a controversial Boston University laboratory in the South End.
Known as the BU Biolab, the University wants to begin creating and studying the world’s deadliest pathogens at the facility—a Level 4 bio-containment lab—which is located on Albany Street, in the heart of a densely packed residential neighborhood.
The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, a 192,000-square-foot high-security biolab, has been tied up by legal challenges and regulatory reviews for a number of years. The facility is designed to study deadly germs such as Ebola, SARS and plague.
“We do not dispute the fact that this research is important to humanity,” said Beverley Sky, president of the Union Park Neighborhood Association. “We object to the fact that it will be conducted in our humanity, in a densely populated area, next to a major highway. All we need is one deranged person to fill a van with explosives and pull over on the expressway and set it off.”
Officials from the National Institutes for Health reviewed the results of the latest risk assessment—a 1,756-page tome outlining the potential risks of the facility.
Residents and concerned parties have until May 1 to express their concerns. Points raised at the public hearing, or submitted to federal health officials in writing, will be addressed and considered in federal officials’ final safety assessment of the lab.
State environmental officials granted preliminary approval for the lab to begin research as a Level 2 Biolab—studying less dangerous diseases—in December.
The hearings are now being held as BU wants to begin the Level 4 operations the facility was designed for.
"Stop the BU Biolab"
The common thread at Thursday’s meeting was anger. Residents came decked out in full lab suits, and equipped with signage reading “NO BIO TERROR LAB,” and “Stop the BU Biolab.”
According to Ellen Berlin, spokeswoman for BU, the university plans to use roughly 16 percent of the building as a Level 4 Biosafety lab.
Many residents who spoke out against the plan took issue with the veracity and integrity of the NIH report.
“With regard to the text of the 1,700 pages, the current draft and the companion reader’s guide are subtly and dangerously biased,” said South End resident David Mundel. “If this is what is meant by transparency, you have failed transparency. In many instances, the positive views are placed early in the paragraph ... Sections with negative views, sections with qualifiers, are put later.”
Other speakers, including City Councilor Charles Yancey, said the report does not address contingency plans in the event of a disaster, and that the City of Boston is, in no way, equipped to deal with such an occurrence.
“I’ve interviewed police commissioners, fire commissioners and commissioners of public health, and none of those individuals were able to convince me the city of boston is prepared to respond to that emergency,” Yancey said. “I’ve asked our firefighters directly: are they prepared to deal with that type of emergency? And they told me they haven’t even been trained yet. I’ve asked our police officers: what would our response be? And they had no answers.”
"Our Community Will No Longer Get Dumped On"
A number of local and state legislators also turned out to voice their opposition to the facility on behalf of their constituents.
“It is very simple,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson. “Our community will no longer get dumped on. We have an expressway, we have all the traffic that occurs in a city in that area, and we also have a prison. We do not need ebola, or whatever other airborne or non-airborne agents in our community.
“Within a mile of that area is the largest and busiest bus terminal in the state of Massachusetts, with about 30,000 riders who move through there every single day. It scares me beyond no end, and I went through the tour and the tour scared me even more.”
At-large City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo also stood and spoke in opposition to the lab.
“I’m still not convinced,” he said. “And I’m still opposed to a bio level 4 ... Not only at this site, but frankly, anywhere within the boundaries of the city of Boston.”
Call for Action
Community activist, and former mayoral candidate, Mel King called for protests and demonstrations outside the facility, and said residents’ anger should not be limited to just BU and NIH.
“It’s one thing to go after NIH,” he said. “I think there are some local folks, the mayor, Governor Patrick, that we have to go after too ... This shouldn’t be in anyone’s back yard.”
While nearly everyone who stood up to speak on Thursday night was bitterly opposed to the biolab, some were in favor.
Kevin Norton was the evening’s first speaker, and he told residents and officials that he believes the lab has the potential to do much good, and is in favor of it.
His was clearly the minority opinion.
State Rep. Gloria Fox (D—Roxbury) attended the hearing, and spoke against the plan as well, stating no Level 4 biolab should exist in the “heart and soul, and most densely populated part of the city of Boston.”
With community members and civic leaders in clear and abundant opposition to the lab operating as a Level 4 facility, it remains to be seen what will happen next. For some, however, past promises have already answered that question.
"Will You Keep Your Word to Us?"
“At the last public forum, the NIH panel indicated nothing would be approved that did not have community support,” said Sky. “Does that promise still hold? Will you keep your word to us? Are you listening to us?”
She ended by voicing her displeasure with Mayor Thomas Menino’s approval of the lab.
“We are deeply disappointed the mayor has turned his back on his people to support this misguided facility,” she said.
One thing is clear: The latest risk assessment did nothing to quell fears surrounding the lab, nor did it appear to sway anyone’s opinion. Many people ripped the report as being inaccessible and overly obscure.
“In an attempt to be helpful regarding the summary,” said Mundel, referencing the fact that no adequate summary of the massive document exists, apart from the reader’s guide, which residents were instructed not to cite during the hearing. “I wrote something down, and I quote: ‘based on the available evidence and insights, it is difficult to adequately or accurately predict the level of risk associated with the proposed facility.’ That one sentence is, in fact, a summary of the entire 1,700 pages.