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Friday, February 17, 2006  
Activists push fight on germ research: Appeal filed

By: Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer:
Published In: San Francisco Chronicle

Appeal filed over lab's new facility for study of pathogens


Activists have turned to federal court to stop Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from opening a facility in April for testing disease-carrying microorganisms that critics fear might escape and wreak deadly havoc across the Bay Area.

The agents slated for study include anthrax, plague, botulism and Q fever, a bacterial disease that in its more virulent form, chronic Q fever, kills up to 65 percent of its victims.

Two groups, Tri-Valley CARES (or Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, want the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to issue an order preventing the U.S. Department of Energy from opening the lab pending further environmental analysis.

The "deadly bioagents tested at this facility could escape to the environment through earthquake, fire, terrorist attack, sabotage, operator error or failure of the containment filters through which the air in the facility would be exhausted to the outside," Oakland attorney Stephan Volker said in papers filed to the court.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore lab have conducted biowarfare-related research in the past, but the new lab, known as Biosafety Level-3, will allow them to study pathogens of considerably greater virulence.

The groups had gone to court once before to prevent the facility from opening, but were rebuffed when U.S. District Court Judge Saundra Armstrong ruled in September 2004 in the Energy Department's favor. Wednesday's move was an appeal of that ruling.

Livermore officials said Thursday that they plan to oppose the group's latest move, saying it would "potentially delay the startup of important homeland security research."

Armstrong upheld the Department of Energy's environmental assessment as adequate, the lab said. "The same issues that were raised at the trial-court level -- and rejected there -- are being put forward again," the statement said. "We believed then and continue to believe that (the judge's ruling) was a sound decision."

Livermore Lab spokesman Steve Wampler said the research being performed in the new facility will be intended not to invent bioweapons but, rather, to find ways to protect against the use of such deadly agents by terrorists or other foes.

"The U.S. is a signatory to the (international) biowarfare convention and does not conduct bioweapons research," Wampler said.

Volker replied that "this kind of research actually has no clear demarcation between offensive and defensive weapons." While ostensibly using genetic engineering to create new, super-deadly types of microbes for defensive purposes, the lab scientists could unintentionally be generating new types of super-weapons for terrorists -- if the terrorists could get their hands on them, Volker said.

Security at the lab is often unreliable, Volker added, citing past instances "where keys were lost (and) facilities were left exposed to potential theft of these kinds of materials."

He also expressed concern that laboratory filters might be so old and brittle that microbes might escape through them into the environment.

The University of California has run the lab under contract to the Energy Department since the early 1950s.

E-mail Keay Davidson at

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