Reading Room

Oops: Biological Accident Analysis Relied on By DOE Seriously Flawed.

Pursuant to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), The Department of Energy (DOE) analyzed the environmental impacts of its proposed (and now operating) Biological Safety Level-3 at Livermore Laboratory in a cursory Environmental Assessment (EA). Rather than completing its own analysis of the potential health and safety risks associated with exposure to pathogens from the facility, DOE used the analysis of a previously released Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) done by the U.S. Army for a similar facility proposed at Fort Detrick in Maryland. The Livermore Lab BSL-3 EA used the same catch-all accident scenario to analyze all potential accidents (whether intentional terrorist act, or accidental) as used in the Fort Detrick facility EIS. They also reached the same conclusion, that the scenario showed there was no risk from the facility.

Due to vocal public concern over the adequacy of the Fort Detrick EIS, The National Research Counsel, (the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering) assembled a multidisciplinary committee of individuals with expertise in biosafety, infectious diseases, industrial hygiene, environmental engineering, risk assessment, epidemiology, and stakeholder participation. The committee was asked to evaluate the scientific adequacy and credibility of the analyses of health and safety risks associated with exposure to pathogen research, and the proposed strategies to mitigate those risks, as presented in the final EIS (i.e. the same analysis using the catch-all accident scenario as the Livermore BSL-3 EA).

Tri-Valley CAREs has been involved in litigation over the adequacy of the Livermore BSL-3 NEPA review (the EA) since 2003. When the 9th Circuit reviewed the EA, they ordered the Lab to do a more thorough analysis of the terrorist threat posed by the facility. The DOE chose to simply revise the EA. While we interpreted the 9th Circuit ruling to mean that the catch-all accident scenario was inadequate, the DOE chose to stick with this same catch-all scenario as the basis for its "revised" analysis that it used in its original document.

The National Research Counsel evaluated this same accident scenario in its recent evaluation of the Fort Detrick EIS and found the following;

"[T]he committee was unable to verify th[e] prediction [that the ground concentrations from the accident scenario would be insignificant and would not pose a health hazard to the community], because the modeling performed in support of the scenarios was not transparent, could not be reproduced, and was incomplete. Specifically, the data and parameterizations used in the computerized simulation scenarios were not provided in the EIS and the model software (Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability model) is a closed-source system not available for independent review. The committee attempted to verify the calculations using common alternative models. The committee's calculations indicated the potential for significantly higher doses of infectious agents following puff releases than was described in the EIS."

"Other problems with the maximum credible event (MCE) scenarios were the use of inappropriate scenarios and inadequate enumeration and characterization of risks. EIS guidance specifies that hazard scenarios should be "reasonably foreseeable," but the ones used in the USAMRIID EIS required multiple failures, such as human errors (e.g., failure to use O-rings to seal the centrifuge tubes) and safety failures (e.g., inoperable high-efficiency particulate air [HEPA] filter). Results appear to present only peak concentrations, rather than total infectious agent dose, which is the most appropriate measure of per-person risk. The EIS contained no documentation of an individual's risk of infection under the prescribed conditions or any description of the effect of population density and population size on the number of cases expected for any of the pathogens of interest. Furthermore, the scenarios only considered exposures beyond the Fort Detrick fence line, with no consideration of exposure to USAMRIID workers or other people on the base. Despite the committee's estimation that an exceptionally large aerosol release might pose a human health risk, there are no reasonably foreseeable scenarios where such a release could occur."

"The EIS does not provide a systematic characterization of exposure risks and consequences associated with the scenarios. Nor does it document the effects of mitigation measures on scenarios or how risks would vary under alternative actions. For example, a systematic review would have identified arthropod escape as an exposure scenario, in addition to those characterized in the EIS of escape of an infected animal, mishaps during biological material shipments, terrorist acts, external acts (such as natural disaster or mechanical failures), spread by an infected worker, and cumulative impacts. Several biological agents likely to be studied at the new USAMRIID facility are transmitted by arthropod vectors (such as fleas, mosquitoes, and ticks), and the vectors may be used in the course of research. Consideration of such a scenario in the EIS would have shown that there are significant ecological barriers that make associated relative risks small. Another scenario that was not considered was the threat of an insider with malicious intent. Although such a situation is difficult to predict or quantify, it is clearly of concern to the citizens of Frederick County."

"The EIS does not provide scenarios describing potential exposure risks involving pathogens to USAMRIID laboratory personnel, but does cite a brief history of cases of laboratory-acquired infections occurring between 1989 and 2002. Review of these cases illustrates both means of transmission and procedures in place to address identification and treatment of affected laboratory workers. Common risks to workers are needle- or sharps-stick accidents, inadvertent aerosol generation that leads to inhalation or ocular/mucosal exposure, and contact with infected laboratory animals." (end quote)

Not only does the National Academy of Sciences find that the catch-all centrifuge accident was not reasonable, they found that the EIS was deficient for not including other reasonable scenarios, including escape of an infected animal, mishaps during biological material shipments, threat of an insider with malicious intent, external acts (such as natural disaster or mechanical failures), spread by an infected worker, and cumulative impacts. All of these were similarly relevant factors that were not analyzed in the Livermore Lab BSL-3 EA.

Thus, the report by the National Research Institute demonstrates that the DOE failed to adequately consider all relevant factors in its revised EA for the Livermore Bio-Warfare Agent research facility. Nor does DOE provide what we at Tri-Valley CAREs consider to be a credible explanation why not.

Click here to read the National Research Counsel's Evaluation.