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Friday, February 17, 2006  
Court halts testing of bio-agents

By: Phil Hayworth, 925-830-4221,
Published In: Tracy Press, Tracy, California

A Livermore-based advocacy group filed for an injunction in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday temporarily preventing the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from importing and testing dangerous biological agents at its proposed testing site in Livermore.

The Department of Energy in 2002 gave the Lawrence Livermore Lab permission to construct a laboratory that would house research on Level-3 pathogens. Level-3 laboratories work with bio-agents that may cause serious or lethal disease by inhalation if left untreated, according to the federal energy department.

The site would be the first Level-3 lab to be located at a top-secret weapons facility, says Livermore-based Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, which has mounted several legal challenges to the facility.

This potential partnership with a secretive weapons facility doesn?t sit well with CARE, which says it could send the wrong message to other nations.

?Even if it?s buried 70 miles beneath the Earth?s surface, the idea that a top-secret, nuclear facility with little transparency is testing biological agents is not a good sign to the rest of the world,? said Loulena Miles of CARE.

A spokesman for the laboratory says the group is wrong to suggest that just because the testing grounds are on secret laboratory property, tests there will be offensive in nature. They also insist that the lab poses no danger to nearby communities.

?There are no bioweapons or biowarfare facilities in the U.S.,? said Stephen Wampler, a spokesman for the lab. ?These would be facilities that develop or do research on bioweapons. They are illegal. The U.S. is a signatory to the Biowarfare Convention and does not conduct bioweapons research.?

The 1972 Convention, which took effect in 1975, prohibited the development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of biological and toxin weapons and required the destruction or conversion of such weapons or delivery means.

CARE also warns that the lab will use some of the most dangerous live pathogens known, like botulism and Q fever, not just well-studied and relatively safe Level-2 organisms, such as streptococcus, which causes strep throat.

?We might do them, we might not,? Wampler said. ?If they are, they?d be done in small, sealed chambers.?

For the time being, no Level-3 pathogens will be researched at the lab.

?Now they can?t do anything until the court rules,? Miles said. She expects the court will rule by March 15, after which the lab could begin tests.

The group hopes to buy enough time to convince the Department of Energy, which runs the facility, to conduct a thorough environmental study. That would give the public the chance to comment on the new lab.

The energy department conducted an environmental ?assessment? already, she said, but the next report would be far more stringent.

CARE says the agents used at the Level 3 lab would be housed in a prefabricated building, which is less stable than a permanent structure, Miles said.

Wampler said the structure would be built to the same standard as fire stations, which are designed to withstand large earthquakes.

Wampler said the lab might work with dangerous pathogens like anthrax and plague, but only for the purpose of finding better, faster ways to detect them and save lives.

?With rapid detection, you can help and treat people and save lives more effectively,? he said.

For example, the lab, in conjunction with Los Alamos National Laboratory, created a detection system used during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic games.

?Since we started working with plague and anthrax in our existing Level-2 facility, we have found we can progress two to three times faster in developing tests for detecting pathogens than we could before,? Wampler said.

The new lab would allow scientists to conduct more sophisticated experiments on a wider array of microorganisms, he said.

?We think they can do it under the auspices of a civilian, not a top-secret nuclear-weapons facility,? Miles said. ?Level 3 sends a different message to the world.?

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