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Thursday, February 16, 2006  
Livermore lab watchdogs ask court to delay 'hotlab'

By: Betsy Mason
Published In: Contra Costa Times

LIVERMORE - A local watchdog group has asked for an emergency injunction to stop Lawrence Livermore Laboratory from opening a new "hotlab" where anthrax, plague and other deadly pathogens would routinely be tested.

"Our main concern is the fact that the facility is not built to withstand foreseeable earthquakes in the Livermore area," said Loulena Miles of Livermore-based Tri-Valley Communities against a Radioactive Environment.

The group wants the Department of Energy to do a full environmental impact statement for the "Biosafety Level 3" facility, or "hotlab," that takes into account the impact of potential earthquakes and terrorist attacks.

The DOE already did an environmental assessment, but Miles claimed it didn't consider possible terrorist attacks or the two active earthquake faults that lie within two miles of the new facility. One of those faults, the Greenville Fault, had a 5.9 earthquake in 1980 that injured 44 people and did $10 million worth of damage to the lab.

Livermore Lab spokesman Steve Wampler said the new 1,600-square-foot "hotlab" has been built to the same standards as are fire stations, hospitals and police stations. "These are buildings that are needed in the event of an earthquake and will still be standing."

The lab currently has a Biosafety Level 2 facility that has already made important advances with plague and anthrax research, Wampler said. "This proposed facility would allow our scientists to conduct more sophisticated experiments on a wider array of microorganisms. We'll also be able to learn more about new emerging diseases."

The lab plans to oppose the motion, Wampler said. "The same issues that were raised at the trial court level - and rejected there - are being put forward again. We believed then and continue to believe that this was a sound decision."

Tri-Valley CAREs doesn't quibble with the value of research that could be done at a level 3 facility. But Livermore, its members say, is not the place for that research. "It's already such an attractive terrorist target without putting advanced biowarfare agents there," Miles said.

The current motion is the latest move in a battle over the "hotlab" that started more than two years ago.

Tri-Valley CAREs and other watchdog groups originally sued the Energy Department in U.S. District Court in August 2003 claiming the environmental impact of proposed "Biosafety Level 3" facilities at Livermore lab and Los Alamos National Laboratory had not been adequately studied. The following December, a federal judge barred shipments of biological agents including botulism, anthrax, plague, valley fever and Q fever until a final decision on the lawsuit was made. In September 2004, the judge gave Livermore's biosafety lab the go-ahead.

The groups appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in November 2004 and are waiting for a hearing date to be set.

In November 2005, the DOE announced it would do a full environmental impact review for the proposed hotlab at Los Alamos. Meanwhile, the Livermore facility is scheduled to begin work in April, prompting the watchdog groups to file this week's "urgent motion to stay."

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