B’rooter not thrilled with new biohazard lab 

President George W. Bush brought his war on terrorism to the hinterlands Monday night.

In the Bitterroot, plans are underway to construct a $66.5 million laboratory for containment and study of deadly pathogens that could be used as weapons of mass destruction.

A so-called biosafety level 4 lab will be constructed on the campus of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a 75-year-old federal biological research lab in Hamilton. The planned 76,000 square-foot addition will be designed to handle bacterial and possibly viral pathogens such as hemorrhagic fever, and emerging pathogens requiring the stricter containment design of a level 4 biosafety lab. It will be the fifth such lab in the nation and the only one in the Northwest. Construction is slated to begin early next year and should take two years to complete.

Construction of the lab in one of Hamilton’s nicer residential neighborhoods didn’t sit well with a majority of the 50 or so people who attended a public scoping session Monday night. Pointed questions and general suspicions were directed at Lab Director Pat Stewart and the half-dozen contractors and designers on hand to solicit questions and comments for an environmental assessment now underway.

Safety, the small public turnout, the relative speed of the project and the brief two-week public comment period on the environmental assessment were all on the minds of speakers as they voiced their general discontent of a project that, however unsolicited and unwanted by the local population, represents an exciting opportunity for local scientists.

“It would not be beyond our imaginations that you could have a bomb go off there and we’re looking at contamination of air and water,” said one woman.

“Gentlemen, you’re about to invest $66 million in our community. What’s the rush?” asked one man.

Why not build it further out in the country, away from neighborhoods and vulnerable populations, asked another. And finally, from a frustrated questioner: “How in the world do we know what to ask you?”

Not everyone opposed the project, however. One woman chided the questioners for practicing NIMBYism. It’s not fair, she said, to ask fellow countrymen in other parts of the nation to take all the risks while leaving Bitterrooters free to enjoy peace in paradise. “You can’t say ‘Not in my backyard anymore,’” she told the crowd.

“Why not?” one woman called out from the crowd. “We’re Americans.”

Lab scientists Tom Schwan and Marshall Bloom attempted to reassure the crowd, saying the chance to study pathogens not ordinarily seen at the Rocky Mountain Lab was too good to pass up. “I’m not concerned about this lab being a biosafety hazard,” said Schwan. “We’ve got the best in the world working on this facility.”

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