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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Town Meeting Should Oppose Future Biodisaster

Dennis Fox

October 20, 2005

Town Meeting doesn't often get a chance to weigh in on potential life-threatening disaster when there's still time to prevent it. Next month's meeting provides an exception. Brookline should pass a proposed resolution opposing construction of the Biosafety Level 4 lab in downtown Boston.

Most spring and fall Town Meeting sessions, members elected by their neighbors wrestle with more mundane matters. This November, they will debate, among other things, budget amendments and affordable housing provisions, street signs and shade trees, parking regulations and procedural changes. Some warrant articles matter more than others. Ridicule tossed Town Meeting's way is sometimes deserved, but many articles are indeed substantively or symbolically significant enough to merit public debate even when time is short and our representatives have had enough.

Article 30 is one of them. Town Meeting should endorse "A Resolution Opposing the Construction of an Unregulated BSL4 Lab in the City of Boston" even though the high-tech bioterror lab will be located outside Brookline's borders and even if it becomes perfectly "regulated." Of course, the proposed facility at the "BioSquare" next to Boston University Medical Center isn't all that far away -- just two miles as the infected crow flies, placing Brookline inside any future contamination zone. The Brookline Village T stop is closer to the BioSquare than it is to much of South Brookline and Boston College.

Arguments against placing one of the country's five top-danger labs in the crowded South End, adjacent to Roxbury, were persuasive two years ago when I first commented on the "politically motivated scientific hubris" that guaranteed absolute safety come what may. This wouldn't be the first time in U.S. history that the government lied about the safety of some technological wonder supposedly required by national security. From time to time researchers still come across more data about the U.S. deaths spawned by our nuclear weapons testing program, all denied during the atomic 1950s and 60s.

Lab proponents, for whom "biotech" conjures up utopia rather than disaster, emphasize the many jobs $128 million in federal funds will bring and the ideal location for Boston researchers. That even a small disaster would disproportionately harm low-income people of color apparently doesn't trouble decision makers. Besides, putting the lab in the middle of nowhere, where any escaped Ebola virus would kill far fewer people, is just too inconvenient.

An article in last Sunday's Boston Globe is not very encouraging. True, Boston City Council President Michael Flaherty has switched from pro to con because of the "total breakdown of government response" after Katrina. It's about time.

On the other hand, the Boston University spokesperson's assurance that tight security would make an accident "unlikely" is hardly assuring enough. "The risks are extraordinarily low," she insists, and a spokesperson for Boston's Public Health Commission agrees: "We have been very focused on emergency preparedness since 9/11."

Just like FEMA.

The Boston Public Health Commission's plan in the event contagion does emerge from the Level 4 fortress is also troubling. Boston could "issue isolation orders and fine or arrest residents who refuse to abide by such orders. The commission also has the power to quarantine healthy people suspected of being exposed."

Now, imposing a quarantine when the avian flu pandemic arrives may be necessary. But the conscious decision to build, in the middle of a metropolitan area, a facility that's merely "unlikely" to have a devastating accident -- especially one destined to be a target of terrorists and subject to any number of unforeseeable accidents and breakdowns that no longer seem out of the question-- is simply unconscionable. There should be no cost-benefit analysis here.

Town Meeting should approve Article 30, which endorses a Boston City Council proposal to "ban the use of Bio Safety Level Four Agents in the City of Boston." Less reassuringly, the resolution also endorses a legislative attempt to impose state regulations on top of federal rules, which seems to imply a lab would ultimately be approved. If the House bill is really intended to kill the lab through regulation, that's great. If it merely imposes a few more rules that leave the fundamental danger intact, Town Meeting should insist that Brookline's representatives and senator push for much more.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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