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Top-secret Livermore anti-germ lab opens

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San Francisco Chronicle
February 3, 2008
By David Perlman

A high-security laboratory where deadly microbes are being grown by scientists seeking defenses against terrorist attacks began operating in Livermore last week without public announcement, and opponents said Friday that they will go to federal court in an effort to close the facility down.

Built inside the closed campus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the facility has been controversial ever since it was first proposed by homeland security officials more than five years ago. Tri-Valley CARES, the East Bay watchdog group that has long fought nuclear weapons research there, has led the fight against it with protests and legal actions.

The facility is known as a Biosafety-level 3 laboratory where highly trained workers, high-tech airlocks and extremely rigorous safety measures are required by federal rules in order to contain any of more than 40 potentially lethal disease-causing bacteria, viruses and fungi stored inside.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency of the Energy Department, which oversees the Livermore site, announced Monday only that it had "granted approval" for Livermore to begin operating its new biosafety laboratory.

But the announcement did not disclose that the facility had already opened and that its scientists had begun working there the previous Friday - a fact that immediately outraged the lab's opponents.

Robert Schwartz, the staff attorney for Tri-Valley CARES, said he will file suit in federal District Court next week to shut down the facility on the grounds that the final environmental impact statement published by the lab's oversight agency was inadequate and that another supporting document was released without public hearings in violation of the Energy Department's own rules.

In October, the Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco had overruled an earlier federal court decision in support of the operation of the Livermore facility. The appeals court required officials to prepare a new environmental statement, including an assessment of the possibility that a suicide attack by terrorists could breach the facility's walls and allow killer germs to spread beyond the lab.

In response, the security agency filed a document that said such an attack would be "highly unlikely," and that it "found no significant impact" on the public or the environment from operations at the germ research facility.

A spokesman for the Energy Department's nuclear security agency at Livermore told The Chronicle that its office manager approved the final revised environmental documents on Jan. 25, and that scientists began work at the lab the same day.

Asked why the press release on Monday did not disclose that the facility was already operating, the spokesman said "because we needed the time to physically copy the documents and place them in the public reading rooms as well as post them on the Web."

Eric Gard, director of the new facility, said Friday his staff is now growing live cultures of many disease-causing organisms that could be used by terrorists in enemy biological warfare attacks and for which laboratory scientists will seek to develop countermeasures. Understanding the phenomenon of resistance to antibiotics is a high priority, he said.

Among the microbes held in the laboratory are bacteria that cause such highly dangerous and often deadly diseases as bubonic plague, anthrax, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Q fever, tularemia and brucellosis or undulant fever, Gard said.

But scientists in his lab will also be researching other microbes unlikely to be used in terror attacks and that pose such major public health problems as tuberculosis, flu, and SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that proved so deadly among elderly people in China, he said.

The scientists are barred by federal rules from conducting any research using germs for "potentially offensive use or purposes," nor for the production of any bio-warfare weapons, according to the Energy Department.

Continuing its opposition to the Livermore facility by Tri-valley CARES, Marylia Kelley, the organization's executive director, charged in a statement Friday that the lab and its sponsors "are jeopardizing the health and safety of the local community and the surrounding Bay Area." Live anthrax germs grown in the lab and released into the air from the facility, even if it were only "lightly damaged" in a terrorist attack, for example, "could result in up to 9,000 deaths, depending on wind patterns," Kelley maintained.

E-mail David Perlman at dperlman@sfchronicle.com.



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