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Wednesday, June 14, 2006  
How risky is Bay Area biodefense lab?

By: Ian Hoffman
Published In: Oakland Tribune
Federal appeals court questions hazards of Livermore facility in populated region

SAN FRANCISCO ? A federal appeals judge Tuesday questioned building a biodefense lab in Livermore, close to 7 million Bay Area residents, for handling lethal and possibly weaponized germs.

Federal attorneys and opponents sparred over whether the federal government adequately studied the risks of the new biodefense facility at Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons lab.

U.S. Justice Department environmental attorney Todd Aargaard said analysts found the biolab safe even in "catastrophic" situations. The lab is needed immediately, federal officials say, to develop biodetection methods and provide confirmation testing at the first whiff of a biological attack.

But critics, represented by Oakland attorney Stephan Volker, argued to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the government ignored alternative sites, as well as the risk from active earthquake faults nearby and from terrorist attacks.

Federal officials want to begin the research at the lab in August. Opponents have been trying for three years to prevent the startup of the biolab's operations. The appellate court's ruling would allow the lab to operate or send the government back for more environmental studies first.

Assault by terrorists on the Livermore biolab was not "reasonably foreseeable," federal analysts argued, and no more dangerous in any event than an accidental release of highly lethal germs inside the lab.

The court shot down similar logic in a California nuclear-waste storage project two weeks ago, and on Tuesday environmental and arms-control groups urged the same rejection for the new biodefense lab in Livermore.

Livermore scientists would handle, and expose rodents to, the germs that cause anthrax, Q fever, plague and hantavirus.

The U.S. Department of Energy already has built the biodefense lab, and in the opinion of a top federal research manager for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, any delay in starting operations would "directly and adversely impact the national security of the United States."

Mary Schroeder, chief judge for the appeals court, questioned putting the lab in one of the Bay Area's largest urban areas.

"I don't see in the analysis any discussion, anywhere, of what is the most troublesome thing," she told a federal lawyer. "This is being built in a very highly populated area of Northern California."

Federal analysts concluded the location did not matter much because they had considered a "worst-case" accident: A worker inside the lab fails to tighten caps on a half-dozen test tubes full of lethal germs and spins them in a centrifuge until the contents are slung around the lab.

That indoor release could be fatal for any unvaccinated workers inside, but federal analysts concluded that double banks of high-efficiency air filters would capture virtually all of the germs, so a person standing six feet outside of the building probably would not get a lethal dose.

Livermore's analysts also concluded that any fire, earthquake or explosion that broke open the lab and released its microorganisms also would not pose a risk to human health.

Aargaard argued in court papers that "because microorganisms are generally rendered innocuous by high temperatures, fire, and sunlight, (the Department of Energy) determined such events would reduce, rather than enhance, the consequences of a release."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

"There is no reason to believe that there is a significant likelihood that an unfiltered release would ever occur. Accordingly, it would have been an unrealistic assumption to analyze the possibility of an unfiltered release," he wrote.

A different panel of 9th Circuit judges rejected similar arguments two weeks ago, when environmental groups and neighbors challenged the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's approval of new, above-ground storage for spent nuclear fuel at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The court ruled the commission wrongly limited its environmental analyses by largely ignoring the risk and impacts of terrorist attacks. In the Diablo Canyon case, the commission argued that risk of terrorist attacks was too speculative and remote and evaluating the impacts of such an attack could reveal dangerous information.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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