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Statement On The U.S. Biodefense Program From Communities Living In Its Shadow

(view a PDF version of this document)We, the undersigned, face the reality or prospect of federally-funded high containment “biodefense” labs being built and operated in our communities. We all have specific, local health, safety and environmental concerns about these labs existing in our midst. We represent citizen groups from around the U.S., united in our belief that the massive proliferation of “biodefense” laboratories creates a significant threat not just to our communities, but also to our nation, and to our world. We join Biological Weapons Convention non-proliferation experts in concluding that we risk creating a biowarfare arms race with those who do not trust and cannot verify our intentions. The proliferation of these labs makes us all less safe.

Since the August 2008 revelations about the 2001 anthrax letters originating from within the premier U.S. “biodefense” lab, it has become tragically clear that Congress must move quickly to investigate the nation’s “biodefense” programs.

We have many concerns about the proliferation of bio-safety level 3 and 4 laboratories in federal complexes, and in the hundreds of poorly regulated academic and private sector laboratories around the country.

  • In each of our communities, we have found that environmental impacts and hazards associated with these labs have not been analyzed with thoroughness, clarity and scientific rigor. It is not possible to mitigate unacknowledged risks.
  • Our experience is that State and local governments have not been well integrated into lab planning and operations.
  • We are concerned about the threats associated with genetically modified pathogens and dual-use research.
  • We are most concerned about supposedly “low-probability” but “high-consequence” accidents that could result in a public health disaster.
  • Now we also know that the possibility of internal sabotage is quite real. We have been told officially that both the “weaponized” anthrax and the perpetrator of the only bio-terror attack in our history came from within the U.S. “biodefense” program.
  • We are sobered by the fact that since the anthrax letter attacks, the number of workers in these labs has grown from a small number to over 16,000; laboratory space has grown tenfold.
  • Numerous laboratory accidents have been reported. It is plain that many others go unreported, as demonstrated by the unreported accidents discovered by non-governmental watchdog groups.
  • It has become clear that laboratory regulation and oversight are poor.
  • Transparency has been lacking.
  • The GAO and others, such as the Sunshine Project, report that safety programs and protocols are inadequate and have not been followed with consistency and rigor.

Since 2001, “biodefense” funding has provided a $57 billion economic boon, much of it for the private sector. “Biodefense” programs are spread among many federal departments, but are frequently duplicative and poorly coordinated. We have seen no evidence of an integrated federal policy, still less one openly debated by Congress.

Congress must investigate current research and development priorities, funding levels and research requirements in relation to verifiable threats to human and livestock health. Our country needs a fact-based assessment of biological threats, both natural and man-made.

In 2005, more than 750 scientists, including Nobel Prize-winners, decried the diversion of funds to “biodefense” programs away from vital and pressing human health research of broad applicability.

We are aware that intense debate is taking place within the scientific community about whether or not much of the new “biodefense” research is relevant to or would be effective in protecting the population against a biological attack. At the same time, funding has been cut for local preparedness against potential natural or lab-generated outbreaks. These issues are equally present in the debates taking place about the enormous high-containment agricultural research laboratory complexes proposed for some of our communities.

The size and research agenda of the U.S. “biodefense” program has become out of control in the wake of the 2001 anthrax letters. Who decided it was an acceptable risk to genetically re-create and work with the formerly extinct 1918 flu virus, no matter how interesting that research may be? There are far too many comparable examples.

We need a national moratorium on “biodefense” research and, simultaneously, a serious and transparent reevaluation of the big picture. We need a great many more answers before our government pours yet more money into these programs and creates new public health risks and international strain.

Consistent with standard procedures for other federal science programs that pose potential threats to health and safety, we call upon our elected representatives to:

  • Conduct a thorough independent investigation of the executive policies that have driven the unprecedented expansion of “biodefense” research and development since 2001; and
  • Call an immediate halt to development of new “biodefense” facilities and an operational stand-down of existing programs until the many serious questions have been resolved, including those related to:
    • public safety,
    • biosafety and biosurety compliance,
    • laboratory regulation,
    • research focus,
    • select agent use and control,
    • dual-use research,
    • a right-sized program and
    • appropriate locations for high containment laboratories.

Signed September 17, 2008:

Organization LAB
Boston Coalition to Stop the BioTerror Lab Boston University, NEIDL; BSL-4 and BSL-3 Labs (NIH) Boston, MA
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, Grafton, MA BSL-3 labs, BSL-4 ready (NIH)
Frederick Citizens for Bio-lab Safety National Interagency Biodefense Campus, Fort Detrick; BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs (USAMRIID, DHS, NIH) Frederick, MD
Granville Non-Violent Action Team (GNAT) NBAF, proposed site at Butner, North Carolina; BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs (DHS)
No NBAF in Kansas NBAF, proposed site at Manhattan, Kansas, at Kansas State University; BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs (DHS)
Mid-Missouri Branch of WILPF, (No NABAF in Columbia, MO) University of MO, BSL-3 lab; and formerly proposed site for NBAF, Columbia, MO (NIH)
Tri-Valley Cares BSL-3 facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA (DHS)
Labwatch – Seattle, WA WWAMI Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease, Seattle, Washington, BSL-3 labs (NIH

2009 “Communities Living In the Shadows” are calling for a New GAO Investigation


Activists Target Biodefense Labs On Environmental Grounds

Defense Environment Alert – 9/30/2008

Community activists around the country are coalescing for the first time to oppose the expansion of biological defense laboratories on public health and environmental grounds, claiming the proliferation of such facilities will increase the risks that deadly diseases will escape into the environment. The military owns some of the biodefense labs.

The move comes at a time of heightened congressional interest in such expansions, with lawmakers in the recent omnibus spending bill calling for a high-level review of environmental impact analyses the Army has conducted for a lab expansion in Maryland. And a key House Democrat over the last year has been advocating a moratorium on the construction of new biodefense labs, citing concerns over safety controls.

A coalition of groups located near various biodefense labs is now also calling for a moratorium on the construction of new facilities. The coalition, in a first-of-its-kind statement issued Sept. 18, also advocates a halt to their operation while control procedures are reevaluated. “We all have specific, local health, safety and environmental concerns about these labs existing in our midst,” the groups say.

Concern over the safety of such biodefense labs has been growing since a series of anthrax attacks killed several people in the Washington D.C. area in 2001, and subsequent revelations that the probable source of the outbreak was a government laboratory. Until now, the issue has been painted largely as a public health question, but as one activist points out, certain pathogens, once released into the environment, become difficult or impossible to eradicate.

The source cites anthrax and avian influenza as examples of pathogens that once released can persist in the environment in soil and animal populations, with potentially devastating results. The source is with the activist group Tri-Valley CAREs in California, a signatory to the statement. Foot-and-Mouth Disease, a condition not known to harm humans but deadly to cattle, is another example of a pathogen being studied at biodefense facilities that, once released into the environment, can do enormous damage.

A series of high profile outbreaks of the disease in Europe in recent years has led to the shutdown and quarantine of large tracts of countryside. In the latest outbreak in the United Kingdom, the British government found the release of the disease was caused by one of its own laboratories discharging contaminated wastewater into nearby farmland.

The biodefense issue has already elicited considerable congressional interest. In action just last week, lawmakers through report language attached to the FY09 continuing resolution — the omnibus spending bill that funds DOD and other agencies through next March — Congress calls for scientific experts to review the NEPA analyses the Army conducted for a biodefense lab expansion in Maryland. The lawmakers cite concerns over possible health and safety risks.

The measure takes aim at the Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, MD. “Though the Army has completed the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] process to assess the impact of the expansion on the environment, significant concerns continue to exist in the local community as to whether the assessments of potential health and safety risks and the strategies to mitigate those risks are sufficient,” the report says.

The report language directs the defense secretary to ask the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate the NEPA analyses conducted by the military on the health and safety risks of the lab’s expansion, and report back to Congress by March 1, 2010.

In addition, the House Energy & Commerce Committee has over the past year been probing plans to expand biodefense labs. Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) has called for a moratorium on construction of new biodefense labs, which have mushroomed since the federal government ramped up its efforts to combat potential terrorism using biological weapons in 2004. Dingell, however, has stopped short of asking for a halt to existing research.

An attorney for Tri-Valley CAREs says that NEPA offers the best route to challenge biodefense lab construction and operation because of the strong emphasis on public participation in the law, and its provision for citizen suits. It is much more difficult to challenge the labs under health and safety law, which is the prerogative of state and federal regulators, the lawyer says, adding “NEPA speaks to effects to the human environment.”

A source with a group protesting the expansion of biodefense facilities run by the Army, Department of Homeland Security, and National Institutes of Health at Fort Detrick points to two challenges to biodefense lab construction using environmental law and says more such suits are possible.

At a Boston University facility in Boston, MA, and at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons facility, CA, activists have sued under state and federal environmental statutes, the activist points out. While DOD was not a defendant in either case, Defense Department facilities could easily be targeted in a similar fashion, the source says.

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a Department of Energy (DOE) facility, Tri-Valley CAREs sued the government in 2003 over its failure to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by NEPA for a new biodefense lab at the site. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ordered DOE to consider whether the threat to the lab posed by terrorism justified preparing an EIS. DOE, however, opted instead for a lower-level environmental assessment, which triggered new legal action by activists earlier this year.

In the renewed litigation, Tri-Valley CAREs contends the consideration of the impact of possible terrorist attacks on the lab is inadequate. The judge in the case is expected to issue a ruling in the near future on the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction to shut down the lab, the lawyer for the group says.

In Boston, legal action has focused on a new BSL-4 level facility being built at Boston University’s campus in the city’s economically disadvantaged South End, with activists contending the facility violates the state version of NEPA known as the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). Bio-Safety Level-4, or BSL-4, is the highest level of risk, containing those pathogens such as Ebola fever, for which no effective medical countermeasures exist. The facility, largely bankrolled by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has faced vociferous local opposition. Under a ruling from the state’s Supreme Judicial Court issued Dec. 13, the university and NIH must undertake an environmental review of the facilities in order to comply with MEPA. This marks the latest major legal step in a long history of litigation that dates back to January 2005.

NIH and Boston University expect to complete an additional environmental risk assessment under MEPA at the end of 2009. Opponents of the new lab also complain that the defendants failed to prepare an EIS for the lab under NEPA.

A community activist and expert in environmental cleanups at federal facilities says the nascent anti-biolab movement is reminiscent of the early days of activism against chemical weapons disposal facilities. That movement also began with local groups working in isolation, then developed into a more coordinated national phenomenon, the source says. /– Stuart Parker/

National Biolab News

Detrick researcher may be ill from lab bacteria
Frederick News-Post — December 4 2009

Biolabs Multiplying Like Rabbits: A Clear and Present Danger
Huffington Post — November 16 2009

Kansas – The New Bio Battleground
Anthrax War — October 17 2009

Army breaks ground for new biodefense lab
Army Times — August 27 2009

Inventory Uncovers 9,200 More Pathogens
Washington Post — June 18 2009

New Report Warns Against Applying Personnel Security Measures to Bioresearch Labs
Nuclear Threat Initiative — June 9 2009

CBR Weapons and WMD Terrorism News
War On Terrorism — May 18 2009

Biodefense labs make bad neighbors, residents say
Chicago Tribune — May 17 2009

Inside DHS bioterror storm
Politico — April 23 2009

Canadian-made Ebola vaccine used after lab accident
CTV — March 20 2009

Lab incident with Ebola virus
Biosafety Institute — March 26 2009

Bush started biolab security review before leaving office
Frederick News-Post — February 12 2009

Research halted at alleged anthrax mailer’s former lab
Raw Story — February 9 2009

Remembering the anthrax attack
Salon — March 4 2009

Top Army Biowar Lab Suspends Research After Toxin-Tracking Scare
Wired — February 9 2009

Report Sounds Alarm Over Bioterror
Washington Post — November 30 2008

Lawmakers Call on Bush to Suspend Construction of New Lab
Study: Moving Virus Research Could Be Costly
Associated Press (video) — June 20 2008

Univ. has ‘good shot’ at laboratory bid
The Red & Black — November 14 2008

Boom, or bust?
Nature — November 3 2008

Flooding at UGA germ lab revealed
Atlanta Journal-Constitution — November 2 2008

Questions linger after anthrax death
MSNBC (video) — August 1 2008

Some call for a timeout as US releases biolab security report
Boston Globe — October 17 2008

New lab security report may signal need for pause
Yahoo! News — October 16 2008

Texas offering $100 million in incentives to gain bio-agro defense facility
San Antonio Business Journal — October 9 2008

Drains overflow at disease-study lab
Athens Banner-Herald — October 6 2008

Read More On Galveston

National Lab a ‘bright spot’ for UTMB
KHOU-TV — November 11 2008

Galveston National BSL-4 Laboratory and Hurricane Ike
Suburban Emergency Management Project — September 28 2008

Galveston Biolab Stands Up to Hurricane Ike
BU Today — October 29 2008

Lab weathers storms, not concerns?
The Scientist — October 29 2008

Bio Lab in Galveston Raises Concerns
New York Times — October 28 2008


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