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Waiting for answers

Lab skeptics in Hamilton question deaf ears

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For Hamilton’s concerned citizens and activist groups, the Hamilton City Hall auditorium is a familiar hangout. A month ago, Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) used the venue to present its case for adding a new biosafety level (BSL) four facility—which would contain some of the world’s most deadly pathogens (see “Containment area,” by Jed Gottlieb, May 15, 2003). Last week the auditorium played host to two more meetings centered around the proposed expansion.

The first, on Wednesday, June 25, was put on by Friends of the Bitterroot, the Coalition for a Safe Lab and Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), and pointed out the shortfalls these groups see in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) supporting the expansion. The second, on Thursday, June 26, was hosted by the lab to collect public comment on the EIS.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, Friends of the Bitterroot President Jim Miller told the crowd of about 200 that the EIS is inadequate because it doesn’t address the risk of level four pathogens like anthrax or Ebola virus escaping into the community. Miller—who stresses that his organization has not decided whether it is for or against the expansion—says the lab knows that an outbreak is a possibility, but has chosen to ignore that possibility.

After sifting through 1,700 pages of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Friends of the Bitterroot found a memo the group considers a bombshell. Friends was told in writing by a FOIA officer that the memo was written by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Intramural Research Director Tom Kindt, but hasn’t been able to confirm this with Kindt. The memo reads, in part:

“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.”

As Miller read the memo to the crowd, a chorus of gallows laughter rippled through the room, and one frustrated citizen, deep in the back, called out: “Why are we expendable? Because we’re a small community. I say they build it out in the desert.” Miller’s logic is that while the chance of a containment breach is low, it is a possibility that needs to be considered so local medical workers, law enforcement personnel and citizens know how to handle themselves if remote possibility ever becomes reality.

“It’s our community that could suffer the consequences of their failure,” Miller told those gathered. “We deserve better, and our country deserves better…We thought that a radiation release from a nuclear power plant was near impossible, but yet we had Three Mile Island.”

After Miller and representatives from the Coalition and WVE presented their responses to the EIS—all the groups have serious reservations about the statement—the public took the floor. But only a handful of questions were asked of the presenters. Instead, a sequence of angry rants focused on an EIS that citizens don’t think addresses concerns of decreasing property values around the lab, lack of additional training for law enforcement, negative traffic impacts, increased noise pollution, the possibility of leaking lab sewer pipes and others.

A constant theme running through the comments was curiosity as to why lab and city officials weren’t at the meeting to allay these concerns. On the presenters’ table, name placards sat in front of each chair, but behind the names of Mayor Joe Petrusaitis and lab Director Dr. Marshall Bloom, the chairs were empty. Both Petrusaitis and Bloom were invited, but decided not to come.

Bloom says that Friends requested his attendance at one of the lab’s community liaison meetings several weeks before, and Bloom made it clear then that no National Institute of Health representative would attend.

“The reason I declined to attend is very simple,” Bloom says. “The questions that were going to be asked are complicated…There’s no way I could have sat there and answered any question with any degree of certainty or accuracy unless I brought with me a team of five experts.”

Bloom tries to be as accurate as he can at all times with any questions he receives from the public, he says. Under the circumstances of the meeting, he says he couldn’t be expected to provide all the information requested.

Asked why he didn’t attend, Hamilton Mayor Petrusaitis wrote in an e-mail to the Independent, “The Community Liaison Group never voted to have this meeting. If anyone wants to have a meeting, that’s their right. The official EIS meeting was the next day. The same people were there, so was I and other officials. We are not worried about the Lab impacts. All our concerns were addressed in the EIS statement. The Lab is saving lives. People are dying all over the world and bio-terrorism is a real and present danger. Where are your priorities, let’s put people first!, not politics!”

The following night at RML’s meeting, much the same tone of animosity remained. The meeting began with lab officials giving a presentation and informing the public that this would be a “scoping” meeting, and not a forum in which every question would be answered. Instead, the meeting’s purpose was to learn what the public wants to know about the expansion. The majority of verbal comments at the RML meeting centered on concerns about the EIS’ lack of comprehensiveness.

“Not everything is fleshed out in [the EIS], that’s why you call it a draft,” says Bloom. “It’s obvious that there will be a number of other points that will be raised in a final EIS. As to whether we’ll be doing [a completely new] draft, I don’t know.”

At this point, it remains unclear whether a new draft will be done, and if certain questions will ever be answered. Hamilton’s residents are asked to continue waiting, and hope that answers eventually come.

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