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Containment area

For the Rocky Mountain Laboratories it’s about containing biohazards. For the city of Hamilton, it’s about containing public scrutiny of the lab’s expansion.

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It’s 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23 and a few dozen local residents fill the auditorium of the Hamilton City Hall for the latest in series of open houses presented by the Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML). Hamilton Mayor Joe Petrusaitis, or “Mayor Joe” as he likes to be called, is here, still dressed in work clothes from his day job as owner of Bitterroot Laundry. A few folding chairs behind him sits Mary Wulff, founder of the Coalition for a Safe Lab. Across the aisle is the tall, silver-haired Hamilton City Council watchdog Robert Sutherland. Up in front, the wide-eyed emcee of the open house, Dr. Marshall Bloom sits to the side of the lectern, legs crossed, watching tonight’s guest of honor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Dr. Pierre Rollin.

With a thin, European accent, Rollin is explaining how he crawled through West African diamond mines searching for bats to capture and test for Ebola virus. Mayor Joe mirrors Bloom’s fascination with his gaze fixed on slides of the diamond mine, a crude, makeshift hospital and a quarantined village. Sutherland, Wulff and a handful of others don’t seem to share the curiosity that grips Bloom and the mayor. They aren’t at the open house to hear about the Ebola virus in rural Africa. They are more concerned with the Ebola virus being housed in a neighborhood full of kids on Huffys and backyard barbecues. The lab’s campus is right outside Hamilton’s downtown, blocks away from schools, supermarkets and City Hall.

As the Rocky Mountain Laboratories prepare to expand from a biosafety level (BSL) of three to four—a move that will bring in newer, more deadly and contagious pathogens—there has been little protest from the city and city government. But this handful of critics wonder if the city is so gung-ho lab that it’s not noticing the potential dangers they envision: anthrax traveling down Highway 93 and needle sticks with hypodermics filled with Lassa fever. Others worry about more simple problems like how the city’s ailing sewer system will handle millions more gallons a year. While the idea of the RML open house is to familiarize people with goings on at the lab—even if security precautions dictate that the meetings be held at City Hall, a few miles down the road from the lab’s campus—many of the critics’ questions about the lab won’t be answered here tonight.

After Rollin is a presentation by the director of biocontainment and safety at University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston—the location of one of three operational BSL-4 labs in the United States. Then Bloom opens the event to questions. Council watchdog Sutherland asks the first one. It’s not directed to either guest speaker, but it’s about the intended purpose of six lots adjacent to the lab that have been purchased by the lab’s level four building contractor. Bloom quickly explains the need for more land, something about moving back the fence for added security, then he moves on to the next question. This one comes from Mayor Joe, who stands up and thanks Rollin for coming then steers the discussion back to Africa and away from Hamilton.

Again Sutherland, Wulff and their allies will have to wait to find out what they want to know. How will the city handle millions more gallons of sewage? Where will it secure funding to train the EMTs on how to handle extremely contagious patients? And the big one—why is the lab’s expansion such a great idea?

Robert Sutherland didn’t plan to become a self-appointed city water auditor, but curiosity and concern won him over. At a public meeting last July, the lab announced its intention to add the new facility capable of containing the world’s most dangerous and exotic agents, some which have no vaccines or therapies. Sutherland attended the meeting and was intrigued by the lack of information lab officials divulged about the impacts of a move from BSL-3 to 4.

“Their contractor, who was charged with writing the environmental assessment, kept saying over and over again, ‘We’re here to collect comments, we’re not here to give information,’” says Sutherland.

Sutherland worried that the environmental assessment (EA) wouldn’t be as thorough as he thought it needed to be because city officials weren’t asking “any sort of probing questions” about the project.

“I could tell from that point that there was something going on that was behind the scenes,” he says.

The meeting gave Sutherland the impetus to begin a campaign to understand exactly what the lab’s impact on the city was, and what it would become in the future. Appropriately enough, he began at the bottom—in the sewer. He started showing up at more public meetings and polling city employees about water and sewer billing and consumption records. In the weeks after the July meeting, city administrator Mark Shrives was receptive to his inquiries, but after a conversation with RML administrator Pat Stewart a few days later, Shrives clammed up, says Sutherland.

“He said that that information was confidential,” says Sutherland. “And that I had to get the permission of the lab.”

Because of its research with dangerous diseases, Sutherland knew the lab had to keep some information secret, but he couldn’t understand why billing records needed to be kept under lock and key. So he went to the lab.

Stewart agreed to release the consumption figures for the last five years, but not the billing information. By this time it was November, and it would be another two months before Sutherland got his hands on what he wanted.

“Four weeks after I had made my request, I was finally told that Dr. Bloom had ordered that I needed to make the request in writing before they would give me permission in writing,” says Sutherland. “It just went on and on.”

Fed up with the endless phone calls and red tape, Sutherland filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md. A few weeks later, an NIH representative called Sutherland wondering why he was going through the FOIA process instead of simply asking the lab for what he wanted. Sutherland explained to the representative the Herculean labor he had undertaken at the local level in an attempt to get the records. The next day Stewart’s assistant at the lab called Sutherland and promptly gave him all the lab’s billing information right over the phone.

Down at City Hall, city administrator Shrives recalls a different version of the events. He says that at the end of a conversation with RML’s Stewart, the two came to the conclusion that neither the city nor the lab had a problem releasing the records, but that the lab need to clear it with NIH first.

After an analysis of the billing information, Sutherland began to suspect why the process had taken so long.

For at least six years, Hamilton had charged the lab only for the gallons it used. The water and sewer base rate charges—which all city water users are supposed to pay—were never billed for. A few gallons of water isn’t usually thought of as a costly resource, but RML is far and away the city’s largest customer for water and sewer services—accounting for about 10 percent of all the municipal water used in Hamilton. Using information provided by the lab and city, Sutherland calculated the revenue loss at $238,211.28. He believes that residents should be doubly upset with the city because at the same time he was learning of the lost revenue, the city was raising water base rates almost 100 percent.

City administrator Shrives, who wasn’t yet working for the city in 1996 when the underbilling may have originated, says he can’t explain how the mess got started.

“There is really no record of what happened,” he says. “There just wasn’t any reference to charges or how it was to be charged. So ‘incomplete’ may be the right word for the records.”

Mayor Joe agrees with Shrives that the records aren’t complete and insists it was a case of human error and not part of any policy to charge the lab less than it owed.

“The mistake was made about six years ago and there wasn’t anything put down in writing,” he says. “It was probably who knows what but we’re correcting that mistake.”

Sutherland suspects that the lab isn’t the only place where large billing errors are occurring, but his search for other errors has stalled. Shrives and city attorney Ken Bell have denied Sutherland the billing records for city water and sewer provided to other major users like Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. In a letter from Bell to Public Works Director Lorin Lowry, Bell explains that the right to know provision of the state Constitution limits the right to examine documents when “the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.” In this case, Bell and Shrives agreed that the privacy of sewer customers outweighed Sutherland’s curiosity.

“It’s kind of like your personal records,” says Shrives. “Maybe you’d like to know what’s being released [to the public.]”

Even without digging into more records, it’s clear that Hamilton’s water and sewer systems have problems. Last year, the city lost about 358 million gallons of water to leaks, illegal lines and broken and misread water meters. Over the past three years, the city has repaired a few hundred water lines and installed almost 2,000 new meters, including a $15,000 replacement for the lab’s meter, which had been broken for years.

About the time Sutherland began investigating the billing debacle, the city says it realized that along with not charging the lab base rates, they had never charged RML for an larger water line installed in 1996. The city has since charged the lab $372,439 for the connection.

“Mr. Sutherland’s contention has been that the city never charged for that upgrade to the [larger] line,” says Shrives. “And yeah, we never did. That was one of the issues that’s been raised, so we looked at it, met with the lab, showed them all the numbers and that’s why they got a bill.”

But Sutherland maintains that the bill the lab received was for an upgrade, not a whole new line.

If anyone at the city is concerned about the loss of revenue from repeated billing errors, they aren’t speaking up. Instead, the debate has centered on the generous notion that the lab shouldn’t have to pay for the city’s mistake. The City Council is currently discussing amending an ordinance dealing with collecting underpayments on sewer and water bills. The amendment would exempt RML from Sutherland’s $238,211.28 discovery.

City Councilor Mel Monson insists the council is “not just creating this for the lab,” and that any other underbillings the city has made in the past will also be exempt. This translates to thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands, in lost revenue if further underbillings are discovered.

Councilor Carol Schwan points out that the proposed amendment will only exempt underbilling mistakes made by the city. Underbillings made by residents or businesses will not be exempt—although RML is the only entity that has been substantively underbilled. She adds that the sewer portion of the ordinance, as opposed to the water portion of the ordinance, has never held residents or businesses accountable for city underbillings.

The mayor adds that, because of the broken meter, the city has no way of knowing exactly how much underbilling occurred, although Sutherland insists that using the figures provided by the lab an accurate amount can be ascertained.

Between bouts of sifting through billing paperwork, Sutherland and other City Council watchdogs have scrutinized Hamilton’s “Code of Ethics.” It’s the clause “foster respect for all government” that sticks in a few critics’ minds. Sutherland believes that the mayor and City Council are creating disrespect for government when they go out of their way to change a law that may only benefit the lab.

Fellow council gadfly and Coalition for a Safe Lab member Vicky Bohlig agrees and recently went public with her complaints in an op-ed piece in the Ravalli Republic. In the piece she writes:

“Now, [City Councilwoman] Schwan wants to change [the billing ordinance]. Her efforts to change the formula for underpaid billings would set a crazy precedent and undermine all the legal processes in place to correct such mistakes.”

Throughout, the lab has been exceedingly gracious. They haven’t made a fuss about the $372,439 back payment bill, nor have they said that they won’t pay for the underbilling if charged. But making waves doesn’t seem to be on the labs’ agenda. After all, the lab is trying to soothe public worries about its expansion.

Dr. Marshall Bloom sits in a RML conference room flashing through slides of men in virus-impenetrable “space suits” and Venn diagrams of the NIH hierarchy. Since the announcement of the proposed BSL-4 in Hamilton, Bloom has run through this PowerPoint presentation a dozen times, but his enthusiasm hasn’t waned. For him, the move from level three to four is a no-brainer: a chance to improve on an already prolific and increasingly necessary facility.

The lab began when doctors came to the valley in the early 1900s to study Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Since then it has been acquired by the federal government and moved into illnesses not specific to Montana like HIV, plague and rabies.

When the feds took control, the rural nature of Hamilton made it the perfect place to study the infectious diseases, but now a small city, the remoteness of the location has diminished. As the lab prepares for level four in the next year and a half, the Coalition for a Safe Lab has found it increasingly necessary to press for answers to questions the city has never bothered to ask. The lab has countered the critics with a public relations campaign aimed at educating the public in the gospel of BSL-4.

One arm of the campaign is the series of open houses, but coalition organizer Mary Wulff says there hasn’t been much openness during the meetings.

“At the first one, no one from the public was allowed to ask any questions, and there was a little bit of uproar over that,” she says. “Someone tried to grab the microphone and ask a question and they turned the microphone off.”

Subsequent meetings have allowed for questions, but Wulff says that people have been cut off and very few “straight answers” have been given about what pathogens will be researched, what are the worst case scenarios for outbreaks, and are the local hospitals and emergency responders equipped to handle outbreaks. Many replies consist of “oh, we can’t answer that, we’ll get back to you,” she says. It’s her opinion that the meetings are based in flash, rhetoric and heaping plates of free Albertson’s cookies.

The second arm of the campaign is a community liaison group—which includes the mayor and other prominent citizens, as well as critics such as Wulff. The stated object of the group is to keep the community abreast of the upgrade. Wulff considers the group to be a failure when it comes to educating the public.

“It’s been so choreographed that many times they’ll get to the end of the meeting and there won’t be any time to ask questions,” she says of the public meetings, which are not held at City Hall, but at the lab, behind its barbed wired perimeter. “We asked them from the beginning to have these meetings at a public place where people didn’t have to call ahead of time and go though security.”

Even as a BSL-3 lab, access is permitted only after an invitation is extended. And when the national terror alert is at level orange, two forms of ID are required. Wulff says the meetings are orchestrated to discourage public participation.

“For anyone to ask a question they have to get hold of a representative on the board ahead of time so that that person can ask the questions,” she says. “The whole group was handpicked by the lab. It seems that most of them are pro-expansion and pro-lab.”

If the coalition has failed to counter the public relations campaign, the Environmental Impact Statement is a rare success, says Wulff. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has agreed to complete a full EIS, rather than a more limited Environmental Assessment. The EIS has delayed construction by months, and Wulff believes that her group’s efforts are responsible for getting the EIS done.

“My feeling was that they figured they could slip though the EA without anybody opposing anything and without any comment,” she says.

During the delay, the coalition has researched its concerns about potential accidents, terrorist attacks and fatal disease outbreaks. Like Sutherland, the Coalition for a Safe Lab used the FIOA to gather information legitimizing their concerns. They have found out about accidental needle sticks with syringes, employees who have been exposed to tuberculosis and even a lost bag of radioactive waste at RML.

Lab director Bloom understands that people are concerned about problems like these, but he wants to assure the community that the dangers are overblown. He says one of the exposures to tuberculosis was in 1996, the other in 2000—both before the lab became a BSL-3 facility about a year ago.

“As far as I’m aware of, there has never been an incident of someone in the community that didn’t work at Rocky Mountain Labs ever coming down with an infection from the labs,” says Bloom.

He also explains that the bag of radioactive waste—which was left out on a lab counter by a scientist over a long weekend and missing when the scientist returned three days later—is not the nightmare it may seem.

“We’re talking about infinitesimal levels of radiation,” says Bloom. “It’s not like somebody walked out with it. In all likelihood it got put into the incinerator, which is what would have happened to it anyway.”

Bloom says that the incident was reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the lab has since changed protocol so it will never happen again. Now all radioactive waste is locked up before it’s disposed of.

“Nothing in this world is 100 percent,” says Bloom. “But these are exceedingly rare occurrences here. This is the first time something like this ever happened during at least the last 20 years.”

As the lab moves toward level four, accidents will only decrease as safety levels increase, he says. He adds that there has never been a release of biological agent in to the community from a BSL-4.

“The only incidents that have occurred have been with people working in the BLS-4, and all of those have been accidental needle sticks where a guy was injecting an animal or something…or when someone’s gotten bit by an animal,” says Bloom.

The doctor admits that—while not at RML—there have been deaths in his field, but he says that those who work with these kinds of infectious agents know the risks. He adds that the scientists’ research has an incalculable benefit to the world.

But accidents are only one of the community’s concerns. There is also the threat of terrorist attack. In the current millennium, the litmus test of facility safety is the ability to withstanding a collision with an airplane. In the case of the proposed BSL-4, the question is how big an airplane. If we’re talking about a one-engine Cessna, it’s going to bounce off the 10-inch concrete walls and do nothing, says Bloom. A jumbo jet is another story.

Bloom admits that there are a dozen scenarios that madmen can dream up to do damage to the lab. It’s possible a lab employee could sneak something out. It’s possible that someone could hijack a vial of Ebola virus—which is not transported by a courier with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, but by Fed Ex. What people don’t realize, explains Bloom, is that there are more devastating places to crash an airplane, more dangerous cargoes to hijack, and all these diseases occur naturally anyway.

“If you were a nefarious character and you wanted to get some plague and brew it up and spray it during the Griz-Bobcat game, why would you break into a facility like this or hijack a Fed Ex truck?” he asks. “All you have to do is go over to eastern Montana and catch a [plague carrying] prairie dog.”

Implausible scenarios can be created, he says, but with the security precautions in place the risks are low.

Yet accidents, however improbable, can happen. And if they happen with level four agents like Ebola virus and anthrax, the results could be catastrophic. Which makes Hamilton watchdogs wonder why a level four lab needs to be built across the street from white-picket fence homes. Bloom says that RML is the perfect place for the facility.

“Effective research depends on the collegial interaction of a large group of scientists,” he says. “That’s what we have here at the Rocky Mountain Labs. We have 260 people working on a variety of diseases. So to recreate the Rocky Mountain Labs somewhere, you’d have to acquire the land, make sure you had the infrastructure, and you have to get everybody to move there.”

Bloom goes on to say, “It’s not like the Rocky Mountain Labs has been a day-care center for the last hundred years. We’re already working on all this other stuff. This is just an extension of what’s going on now.”

When U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Fauci made his visit to Hamilton for one of RML’s open houses, the question of “why here” was put to him. He echoed Bloom, saying there was a “critical mass of expertise” already here. Fauci estimates that to replicate what is already in place at RML would cost $1 billion, compared to the upgrade’s $66 million price tag. And frankly, the choice of locale isn’t up to Hamilton.

In local greasy spoons and outside City Council meeting, critics of the lab and city have questioned the two entities’ strangely incestuous relationship. In Vicky Bolhig’s op-ed piece, she alleges that some city employees, like Councilwoman Schwan—whose husband works at the lab—have a conflict of interest in setting city policy toward the lab. Does Schwan see a conflict?

“Goodness no,” she says. “There are other people on the council who have relatives who work at the hospital or relatives who work at other businesses in town that will always be affected by anything that can happen within the city ordinances and decisions made by the city.”

She adds that she is not the only person involved in city government with a relative who works for the lab. Councilwoman Claudia Williamson’s husband and city finance officer Dale Huhtanen’s wife both work for RML. Mayor Joe’s company Bitterroot Laundry washes the lab’s dirty laundry.

“It’s a big employer,” says Schwan.

And it’s the employment opportunities the upgrade will offer that many on the City Council are looking forward to. In the past, some have worried that the lab and its high-paying jobs would leave. Councilman Monson remembers hearing rumors that lab was moving in the ’90s.

“I think making it a level four is putting some commitment into it,” he says. “I don’t think they are likely to close the facility if they go to level four.”

Bloom doesn’t like to frame the expansion in terms of an economic boon, but he doesn’t deny that it is. Fully operational, the upgrade will add $6 million to local economy and 100 new jobs, according to Bloom’s estimates. Although many of these jobs will be imported, they will bring more high-salaried professionals to the Bitterroot.

If there is a downside to having a BSL-4 in Hamilton, the city government doesn’t see it.

“From everything that I’ve seen, the plans and all, I don’t see that there is any worry,” says city administrator Shrives. “They’ve convinced myself and the public works director and whoever else has looked at the information that the city doesn’t have any worries about what will be coming out of that lab.”

The Council and mayor agree that the lab has been open and up-front about the hazards and safety measures involved in the upgrade.

“I know there are some concerns out there and the Coalition for a Safe Lab sends me a lot of articles and I read everyone of them.” says Mayor Joe. “But I’ve learned more about the lab in the last year. I feel like I’ve taken the course Rocky Mountain Lab 101…We have these [community liaison] meetings each month and they fill us in on everything.”

But critics wonder why city officials have additional meetings with lab officials behind closed doors. On Feb. 25, Shrives, the mayor and others met with representatives from NIH, and the public wasn’t invited.

“I asked Mark Shrives a week later about what took place and he said, ‘Oh, they just asked us a bunch of questions,’” says Sutherland. Sutherland and Wulff’s frustration is snowballing, but that’s something they have to live with for now. There is little Wulff and her group can do until they get a look at the EIS, which is expected to come out in the next few weeks. In the meantime, they can hope for more answers, but they probably won’t get them. They have been told that the necessary training for local emergency responders, hospital workers, police and fire will have to happen before the new lab can open, but they haven’t been told when it will happen or how the training will be paid for.

Sutherland will also have to wait for answers about an expanded lab’s impact on the municipal water and sewer system. While he waits, he is plotting his next move—a bid for Councilor Monson’s seat in the November election.

“It’s one thing to raise a stink; it’s another to follow up on it,” he says of his candidacy. “And I don’t want to be guilty of not following up.”

Sutherland’s goal is to let the public in on everything the City Council knows.

“There are deliberations behind the scenes,” he says. “I’m hoping that we can get a few people elected that will counter the lab supporters.”

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