Hamilton’s health not “major” concern 

What does the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases really think about the people living just outside the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton? One citizens’ group just found out.

More than a year ago, in August of 2002, the non-profit environmental group Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB) filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the NIAID for documents related to the past safety performance of the Rocky Mountain Labs. RML, at the behest of the Bush administration, is preparing to construct a $67 million Biosafety Level 4 lab, capable of housing the world’s deadliest pathogens for scientific research.

Five months following FOB’s request, in January 2003, the NIAID responded. Among other things, FOB learned about an incident in April 2001. Due to poor adherence to safety rules, an unknown number of lab staffers were accidentally exposed to Y. pestis, a biosafety level 3 pathogen that causes plague.

“One of our concerns,” says FOB President Jim Miller, “is that they say there’s virtually no chance of a breach at a biosafety level 4, yet there’s been one at a biosafety level 3.”

The real eye-popper, however, came in the form of an unsigned NIAID memo that was included in the many pages FOB received from the FOIA request.

According to the memo: “. . .the RML campus is located in rural Western Montana, well removed from major population centers. The location of the laboratory reduces the possibility that an accidental release of a biosafety level 4 organism would lead to a major public health disaster.” Apparently, exposing the citizens of Hamilton to a level 4 organism does not constitute “a major health disaster.”

Though the memo was unsigned, FOB believes it was written by Thomas Kindt, the director of NIAID’s Division of Intramural Research. Kindt has not responded to FOB’s request that he acknowledge writing the memo. FOB has filed a second FOIA request, but the agency wants $1,400 up front to cover the costs of researching the memo’s authorship.

FOB doesn’t have the money, but Miller nevertheless thinks the group will ultimately uncover the identity of the writer behind the memo. “But by the time we get the information, they’ll be breaking ground” on the new level 4 facility.

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