MT. Pathogen research lab advances
- Pathogen research lab advances
By JENNIFER McKEE
Gazette State Bureau
May 1, 2004
MISSOULA - A proposed Hamilton research lab designed to study the world's most
dangerous pathogens came one step closer to reality Friday when the National
Institutes of Health released another environmental study affirming the
agency's desire to build the facility.
The final decision on the lab is expected sometime after June 4.
"I'm pleased," said Rocky Mountain Laboratories Associate Director Marshall
Bloom. "The assistant superintendent of Glacier National Park just died of a
level 4 virus. If we'd had this lab here (now), there would be people here,
including me, working on it."
Just a step
Bloom cautioned, however, that the incremental step forward announced Friday
does not mean the lab is definitely going to be built.
The NIH, which oversees Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, first
proposed building the lab - known in biological lingo as a "biosafety level 4"
or BL-4 lab - in 2002 at Rocky Mountain Labs. The $66.5 million, 105,000
square-foot building would be adjacent to Rocky Mountain Lab's existing
Only a handful of other BL-4 labs exist in the country.
The announcement drew praise from some, like Gov. Judy Martz, who early on
declared her support for the lab and the scientific prestige it would bring to
the state, but concern from others, mainly local residents who feared for
their safety should deadly microbes escape.
Local concern was so great, the NIH postponed its final decision on the
project to conduct an extra environmental study to answer the growing chorus
of concerns ranging from noise to bioterrorism.
Many residents questioned the ability of rural Ravalli County to respond to a
major biological outbreak and suggested the lab be built some place better
able to respond to such crises. While accidents may be rare, the result of an
accident would be catastrophic, they argued, and should be considered.
Mary Wulff of Coalition for a Safe Lab has long opposed the project and said
Friday it seemed the federal agency dismissed any notion of building the lab
elsewhere. She also said the NIH has refused to turn over information about
Rocky Mountain Labs' safety record to three local organizations, including
hers. The organizations have since sued to get the documents.
She said she was disappointed that the NIH still has not come up with any
contingency plans in case of an emergency at the lab and said she thinks the
environmental studies were not really conducted to see if Hamilton is the best
place for the facility.
"It was predetermined," she said. "They were going to do what they wanted to
Martz's office took a different view.
"We're delighted," said spokesman Chuck Butler. "Governor Martz recognizes
that some people have concerns, but she's pleased the study supports
proceeding with the project."
Biological research labs are broken into four categories depending on the
kinds of microbes scientists can safely handle in them. Biosafety level 1 labs
can handle any microbe that doesn't cause disease and requires nothing more
advanced than a working sink for safety. The most protective are BL-4 labs,
which are designed to prevent microbes from ever coming into contact with
scientists inside or the outside world.
Rocky Mountain Labs already has several lesser protective labs, including a BL-
3 lab, which can safely handle the microbe that causes anthrax. The proposed
BL-4 lab would be a small part of an expansion including several less-
protective research labs.
Bloom said Friday that workers could break ground on the lab by late this
summer if the NIH gives a final approval the plan.
Copyright � The Billings Gazette
Environmental Impact Statement: