How safe is Livermore's biosafety lab?

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Attacks by terrorists don't have to involve explosives. The government is also concerned about bioterrorism. So it's planning to open a new biodetection lab in California. That lab would design systems to warn the public about the release of potentially deadly pathogens. That may sound like a good idea, but not everyone who lives near the proposed facility is happy about it. Some neighbors are worried the government hasn't done enough to resolve safety issues.

Shia Levitt has more on that story from Livermore, California.


SHIA LEVITT: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories hopes to begin work this fall to improve detection and warning systems to notify the public of possible bioterror attacks. It will be Livermore's first BioSafety Level Three Lab says spokesman Steve Wampler.
STEVE WAMPLER:"The Department of Homeland security said that Livermore's Biosafety Level Three Facility will significantly improve the nation's ability to detect and respond to the threat of bioterrorism. All we're asking is for our scientists to be given the tools they need to do the job."

Among the potential tools, small test samples of deadly diseases like anthrax and the plague. Homeland Security says there's little chance of the pathogens escaping. The agency exceeded standards required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spending an additional $700,000 on safety features. The extra precautions include a vaporized hydrogen peroxide decontamination system and extra air filtration devices called HEPA filters, which block most particulate matter.

WAMPLER: We can operate this facility in a safe, secure and efficient manner."

Still, residents nearby worry that the release of even a few ounces of pathogens could endanger thousands of lives. Martha Priebat lives in a community adjacent to Livermore. She says extra HEPA filters don't dispel her concerns.

MARTHA PRIEBAT:"Having been a chemist myself, I know that accidents happen no matter how careful you are. Over the years the HEPA filters have been cracked, have been damaged, there have been numerous cases where the HEPA filters totally failed."

About 100,000 people live in the Livermore Valley, which generates nearly $40 million in agricultural products annually, including nuts, wines and livestock. Priebat says past accidents released radioactive materials into her neighborhood, and she's nervous about her daughter and grandchildren who live nearby.

PRIEBAT:"There's definitely a need for the work that the BSL3 lab does to protect us from terrorism, but I just really don't like the idea of it being in a heavily populated area like Livermore."

In 2005, several residents and environmental groups launched a lawsuit to force the Department of Energy to re-examine key safety concerns like the labs vulnerability to earthquakes, fire and terrorist attacks. Stephan Volker represents the plaintiffs.

STEPHAN VOLKER:"The federal government is funding homeland safety measures to the tune of several billion dollars annually. We are concerned that poorly designed and ill-disclosed efforts could result in substantial breaches of security."

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments for the case in June. The lab is currently scheduled to open sometime later this fall.

In Livermore, California, I'm Shia Levitt for Marketplace.

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