Waaaaay back when this blog was only about a month old, I wrote up a couple of posts based on stories about Boston University’s plans to build a “Biosafety Level 4” research facility – in which the most dangerous pathogens such as Ebola, anthrax, etc. will be studied – in Boston’s South End, one of the city’s most congested neighborhoods. The stories arose out of BU’s total failure to follow its own protocols and state law when an outbreak of tularemia (a rare but occasionally fatal condition) occurred in an existing Level 2 research facility at BU.
I said then that locating a research facility like this in such a congested (and not coincidentally, IMHO, relatively low income) area seemed unnecessary, and a bad idea. I also wondered whether BU was the right institution to be running this thing, in light of its miserable performance in the tularemia incident. In a later post, a debate ensued in the comments as to whether it might in fact be necessary to have the facility where BU wanted it.
Well, it turns out that BU never thought of asking that question! Oops. So a judge decided last week that BU has to do a new environmental assessment to determine (1) whether alternative sites in less congested areas would be feasible, and (2) whether the risk of a “worst-case scenario” – i.e., the accidental (or, I suppose, intentional) release of a dangerous pathogen from inside the facility into the surrounding area – outweighed the benefit of locating the facility in the South End. The judge held that, in light of BU’s failure to ask those key questions, the state’s approval of the existing assessment was “arbitrary and capricious,” and lacked a “rational basis.” Apparently, construction work will continue while BU appeals the ruling, and the plaintiffs have not yet said that they will attempt to obtain a court order to halt construction.
Samiyah Diaz, who is running for Dianne Wilkerson’s Senate seat (the district in which the lab would be located), issued a statement in support of the Judge’s ruling; nothing, as far as I can tell, from either Wilkerson or Wilkerson’s other opponent, Sonia Chang-Diaz. Meanwhile, some of the project’s biggest backers – Mayor Menino and the Herald – remain undaunted in their support for building the lab.
Undaunted, but not terribly convincing. Here’s the Herald’s bottom line:
But to continue to deny the need for this type of facility (one of only two in the nation) near a major Boston teaching hospital instead of in a field somewhere, where research into deadly germs and viruses will allow the federal government to protect Americans from bioterrorism, is to keep ones head buried firmly in the sand.
Of course, that makes no sense at all. First, their facts are wrong – apparently, there are actually six operational Level 4 facilities (two in Atlanta at the CDC, and one each in Frederick, MD; Richmond, VA; Galveston, TX; and San Antonio, TX), with a couple more under construction. Furthermore, what is the Herald’s basis for assuming a “need” to locate a facility like this one “near a major Boston teaching hospital instead of in a field somewhere”? The Herald certainly doesn’t tell us, and indeed, the whole point of Judge Gants’s opinion is that BU hasn’t yet shown that any such “need” exists. And, in fact, one doesn’t have to drive very far outside of Boston (or, more likely, the ‘burbs where most of these researchers probably live) to get to far less densely populated areas than the South End. So the Herald, in classic circular logic fashion, assumes without analysis the answer to the key question, and then chastises anyone who treats the question as still an open one – even though that’s exactly what the judge found. Great work, guys.
As for the Mayor, his own quote, which I assume was intended to show what a good idea the lab is, says it better than I ever could:
“I’d be a fool to think about putting a lab in the city that would have a catastrophic effect on the community,” Menino said in a telephone interview.
You would indeed, Mr. Mayor.