Reading Room

Wednesday, September 13, 2006  
Proposed biolab draws criticism

By: John Upton
Published In: Tracy Press

Tracy residents gathered Tuesday night to air their grievances about a proposed research lab that could be built near Tracy that would house deadly diseases.

A high-security biological defense laboratory that might be built near Tracy to store and study incurable diseases such as the Ebola virus and mad cow disease would be no different than a biological weapons research center, according to a molecular biologist from the University of California, San Francisco.

?The only difference between defense research and offense research is your intent,? said Dr. Judith Flanagan, who said the Level 4 laboratory would replicate the types of experiments terrorists and rogue states might conduct.

However, lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton has previously said that the proposed site would be used exclusively for defense purposes. ?We will not be doing anything related to weapons research. Period,? she said.

But the U.S. would create more of a menace to itself than that posed by its enemies because it would conduct the experiments with more resources and sophistication, said Flanagan, who was one of four speakers to address a crowd of 35 locals and officials at a Tuesday meeting regarding the proposed 500,000 square-foot Department of Homeland Security laboratory.

The organizers and all of the speakers opposed the project proposed by the University of California on Department of Energy land southwest of Tracy at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory?s Site 300.

Representatives of the Department of Homeland Security, Lawrence Livermore lab and the University of California have all issued assurances that the laboratory would be valuable and safe for the local community, which could create 300 jobs and spur related business growth nearby.

University of California spokesman Chris Harrington recently told the Tracy Press that the laboratory would help California?s cattle industry more quickly respond to any outbreaks of foot-and-mouth and mad cow diseases.

Flanagan, who said she had never worked in a Level 4 laboratory, said a culture of secrecy in biological research laboratories means accidents are unlikely to be reported.

Speaker Edward Hammond from the Sunshine Project, which opposes biological warfare, said accidents would be inevitable ? even in a technologically state-of-the-art facility like the one proposed for Tracy.

??Technologically state-of-the-art? isn?t going to do you much good if people screw up,? Hammond said. ?People are human, and they?re going to screw up.

Hammond said biological research accidents included release of swine flu in the late 1970s and the infection of two people with tuberculosis in the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York last year.

Hammond warned that the world wouldn?t trust America?s growing biological research was for defense or peaceful purposes.

Loulena Miles, staff attorney for Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, told the audience that the laboratory would be built in the path of wildfires and earthquakes.

She also said that accidents would jeopardize California?s agricultural industry ? the very industry the research center is supposed to protect from biological terrorism.

?We feel that an assessment needs to happen to determine whether this lab is even needed,? she said.

Tri-Valley CAREs Executive Director Marylia Kelley told the audience that the Department of Homeland Security would consider community opposition to proposed sites when it decides where to build the laboratory, and she urged the audience to sign petitions and write letters to the editor.

Most of the audience was opposed to the laboratory before the evening began.

Bill Hamilton, who has lived in Tracy since 1958, said he supported blocking the proposal because of the ?chance of things going wrong and killing everyone.?

Hamilton said Level 4 biological research shouldn?t occur at the same site as nuclear research. Level 4 biological research centers study diseases with no known cure.

?There?s nothing good that can come out of this,? said four-year Tracy resident Carrie Burnell. ?It needs to be built in a nonpopulated area.?

The Department of Homeland Security is expected to cull the short list of possible sites for the Level 4 biological research laboratory from a list of 16 later this year.

Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert said after the presentation that she would have preferred to have heard both sides of the argument.

?I wish this place had been packed, because this is a discussion that the community needs to have,? Tolbert said.

The audience Tuesday night also included county Supervisor Leroy Ornellas, Tracy City Councilwoman Irene Sundberg, Democratic congressional candidate Jerry McNerney, Tracy mayoral candida te Celeste Garamendi, Tracy council candidate Carole Dominguez and Souza Realty employee John Palmer.

Event organizer Bob Sarvey said Lawrence Livermore turned down an invitation to speak at the event.

? To reach reporter John Upton, call 830-4274 or e-mail

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