Reading Room

Wednesday, September 13, 2006  
Opponents say biological lab would pose threat

By: Jake Armstrong
Published In: Stockton Record

TRACY - In less than a decade, research on the most-dangerous pathogens on the planet could be under way just south of this growing city.

The facility could identify remedies for diseases now considered incurable and plan responses to biological attacks. But at what risk? opponents of a proposed biological research laboratory asked at a public workshop Tuesday night.

A 7,000-acre piece of land south of Tracy is on the short list of sites the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering for a $451million, roughly 500,000-square-foot National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

Handling those diseases and viruses in a lab near so many rooftops could mean disaster if any were released, said Bob Sarvey, a board member for the anti-nuclear-weapons group Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment.

"There are millions of people around here," said Sarvey, who hosted the event at his shoe store. "It would be much better sited in a remote place."

Other than representatives of Tri-Valley CAREs, few of the workshop attendees would discuss their concerns with or interest in the facility.

Tracy City Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert, who attended the discussion, said she wanted to hear about the proposal from its opponents before being briefed by representatives of the University of California.

The university, which operates Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has submitted a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security to build the biological lab on Lawrence Livermore land known as Site 300, a contaminated former testing ground for high explosives. It is the only California site among the 18 under consideration in nearly a dozen states.

Tolbert said she isn't alarmed by the proposal at this point.

"That sense of alarm is remiss until you get the facts," Tolbert said.

Building the biological defense lab in California would allow quicker research and response to animal diseases that pose threats to the state's $32billion agriculture industry, said Chris Harrington, a UC spokesman.

After a recent possible outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, farmers waited about a month for results from livestock tissue samples shipped to and tested at Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a New York laboratory operated by the Department of Homeland Security, Harrington said. Test results came back negative, he said.

"This kind of research would be critical to the agricultural community in California," he said.

Homeland Security officials have said they will weigh the public's response to the 18 proposals before making a decision on the facility in 2007. They hope to open it in 2013.

Harrington said the University of California, too, is interested in the public's sentiment over its proposal.

"We're happy to hear their concerns. ... But we want to be careful that the public understands this is a very safe and secure facility that will be constructed," Harrington said.

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at (209) 833-1141 or

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