Opponents keep fight against BU's Biolab alive

The fight against the controversial Biosafety Level 4 Lab, which is slated to be built in the South End starting later this month, is not yet over, according to activists opposed to the lab. Despite the recent announcement that the project had received final approval from the federal government, local opponents hope that last-ditch legislative attempts can still block the lab's operations, even if the building itself is constructed.

"One of the things that we're fighting right now is the perception that it is (a done deal)," said Becky Pierce, who heads up a committee organizing Dorchester People for Peace's opposition to the lab. "We think it's time to increase our effort."

Pierce said this week that while the facility will likely be built, there is still the possibility to prevent the lab from conducting research with Level 4 pathogens.

Boston University announced earlier this month that the project had received final approval from the National Institute of Health (NIH). With that approval, approximately $128 million in funds will be released to begin an estimated 30-month construction process set to break ground later this month, according to Ellen Berlin, spokesperson for BU Medical Center.

"We kind of knew that the process was going to happen, but we are looking at it as a facility that is being built," said Klare Allen, a community organizer with Safety Net. "There are several things that BU needs to do before they can back in the UHAUL and unload."

The project has been met with fierce opposition since it was announced in 2003 that BU would submit a proposal to construct the lab in Boston. Groups like Dorchester People for Peace have raised many concerns, ranging from questions about the precise nature of the work that will be done there to how safe it is to study Level-4 pathogens in the densely populated South End.

Pierce and others have charged that the lab will be doing research not solely geared towards finding cures for deadly diseases, but also defending against biological weapons.

"To find cures for weapons grade bio agents you have to make weapons grade bio agents," said Pierce. "We don't think this kind of work should be going on, and certainly shouldn't be going on the edge of Roxbury and the South End."

BU has stated repeatedly that neither classified nor bio-weapons research will take place in the facility, said Berlin.

"This is misinformation that is being used to encourage opposition to the laboratory, but it is disingenuous to suggest any of these things," said Berlin.

Projects conducted at the facility will go through the same review process as other currently done at other BU laboratories.

"NIH doesn't fund classified or secret research, and the research that will be done at BU goes through some of our existing committees that examine proposals," said Berlin.

While it appears likely that construction will move forward, Pierce said that there are still a number of avenues that groups opposed to the lab will continue to explore. She cited an ordinance proposed by District Seven City Councillor Chuck Turner, which would preclude research on Biosafety Level-4 pathogens within the city of Boston.

In addition to Turner's ordinance, state Rep. Gloria Fox last year proposed legislation that would provide city and state oversight over any laboratories doing research involving Biosafety Level 3 or Level 4 pathogens. That bill is tied up in the Joint Committee on the Environment, but Pierce fears that the bill has been so watered down in the committee as to ultimately prove ineffective.

Other channels include two lawsuits, one already filed, another drafted, according to Allen.

She said that oral arguments will be heard on Friday in a lawsuit with MEPA regarding alternative sighting for the project.

There's also talk of preventing the start of construction.

"A lot of people are talking about direct action - sitting in front of bulldozers," said Pierce.

While Dorchester people for Peace has been outspoken in its opposition to the project, others in the neighborhood have a different take.

"I'm in favor of the project. I know it is too close to home and that can be a big factor and big concern," said Fernando Bossa, who's active in the Groom-Humphreys Neighborhood Association and Uphams Corner Main Streets. "I understand that risk, but I also think the benefit of it is research and cures."