Concerns aired over new bioresearch lab 

Bitterrooters don’t want to be targets in the War on Terrorism. They harbor suspicions about the safe transport of killer viruses through their community. They don’t want a concentration camp-like atmosphere pervading the place they call home. They don’t appreciate the appearance of a certain corner on South Fourth Street in Hamilton. And they resent the federal government’s patronizing attitude to neighborhoods that are far from the Beltway.

These are just some of the complaints directed against a plan to build a biosafety level-4 lab at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton.

President Bush has directed RML’s parent agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to take on what RML spokespeople call “a leadership role” in developing new diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for diseases caused by potential agents of bioterrorism. For Bitterrooters, this could translate into a $66.5 million biosafety level-4 lab, capable of harboring the world’s deadliest and most infectious pathogens, scheduled to be built in the spring of 2003 at RML’s Hamilton campus.

A biocontainment lab, as it’s also known, employs the most stringent safety standards for research labs in the nation, including positive-pressure air supply space suits, air-lock buffer zones, chemical decontamination and microfiltration of air. There are only four other biosafety level-4 labs in the United States, but this would be the first such lab in the Northwest.

In response to the proposal, a group of local residents formed the Coalition for a Safe Lab, which concerns itself primarily with ensuring the safety of the community and its residents. Last week about 100 people turned out at a Coalition meeting in Hamilton. At least three RML scientists also attended as private citizens, not as official RML spokesmen. There was no official lab or NIAID presence. Tony Wood, who opened the meeting, told the crowd that the lack of information at a public meeting held in July by RML and the biosafety lab building contractors left him in despair. “I felt my liberties were being violated,” he said. “The people should have a say and they can only have a say when they have information.”

It’s not only the presence of pathogens such as the Ebola or Marburg virus that concerns people. After all, RML scientists have worked with other dangerous diseases in its current location for 75 years. Ruth Peterson, a neighbor of the lab, showed the crowd photos of the lab property she took from her home, which show piles of trash littering the RML property, apparently in the aftermath of a recent remodeling project unconnected to the biosafety level-4 lab. Others voiced similar concerns for the unwelcome changes in RML’s appearance post-Sept. 11. The old two-story brick building at the south end of Fourth Street, surrounded by a “tick moat” (built in the 1920s to keep lab ticks from escaping) has undergone a physical changes since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Long considered a “good neighbor,” the lab, say some residents, has been symbolically cut off from its own neighborhood by a chain-link fence and armed security.

“It’s going to be this imposing place right in our town,” said Pam Erickson of the planned lab. “I think it’s going to change the character of our town. It’s going to put this extra tension in our town that I’d rather not see.”

Others pointed out that the NAIAD and RML have done little to establish trust with the people of the Bitterroot Valley. “I don’t feel the feds have been really straight with us,” said Joan Perry. “I really question, why here? It’s not a NIMBY thing.” The powers that be, she added, must “understand that we’re not so frigging desperate for jobs that we’d put our community at risk.”

Said Doug Soehren, “During my childhood everyone thought the lab was a good neighbor, and to some extent it’s still a good neighbor. But things have changed. I feel like the quality of life has been going down.”

Dr. John Swanson agreed. Swanson, a former lab chief with 22 years at RML, retired last November and has been a vociferous critic of the noise and the lab’s malfunctioning incinerator ever since. “I’m not an advocate of the lab,” he said. Even so, he added in an effort to assuage some concerns, “this [plan] doesn’t represent anything new.” The lab has a long history of researching nasty bugs, and until recently, using primitive safety precautions. In 1979, for instance, lab scientists researched virulent tuberculosis by “spewing it around” in a centrifuge using nothing more high-tech than plywood screens to protect the scientists from infection. “Nothing like that is done now.” Safety protocols, tools and devices have improved dramatically over the years, he said. Pathogens, including the AIDS virus, already “come through the mail every single day” to the lab, without incident.

But Swanson, also a long-time neighbor of RML, agreed with others about the lab’s new and unsightly appearance. “The lab used to be part of that side of town. Now it’s an eyesore in that part of town.” The National Institutes of Health, the parent agency of the NIAID, would never chain-link fence its main campus at Bethesda, Md. in such an ugly fashion as it did with RML, Swanson noted. “They couldn’t get away with it.”

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