Bugging Out

The feds hold up germ experiments at Los Alamos National Lab

Facing a court challenge, the U.S. Department of Energy has delayed plans for a controversial biodefense lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. But DOE officials insist that a similar “hot lab” intended for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the East Bay remains on track.

In documents submitted in federal court in Oakland last week, government lawyers portrayed DOE's decision to withdraw an environmental assessment prepared for the Los Alamos facility and start over as having no bearing on the department's efforts to open a Biosafety Level 3 germ lab at Lawrence Livermore to experiment with anthrax, bubonic plague, and other deadly pathogens.

An Energy Department news release attributed the government's withdrawal of the Los Alamos environmental assessment to “new circumstances and information” but did not elaborate. The release said DOE hopes to have a new environmental evaluation prepared in “3 to 4 months.” Government lawyers were similarly vague in court documents, saying the decision was “based on new information that had not been previously considered.”

But watchdog groups that have sued to prevent the germ labs from opening at the nation's two premier nuclear weapons research centers view the move as a tacit admission by the government that it violated environmental law in approving the facilities.

“It's a concession that the [environmental assessment] for Los Alamos was indefensible, and I think the Department of Energy has concluded that the better part of valor is to beat a hasty retreat,” says Oakland attorney Stephen Volker, who represents Livermore-based Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. “If anything, [DOE's] environmental assessment for Lawrence Livermore is even more flawed.”

A top official in the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration disputes that view. “Certainly the fact that there was a court challenge had some bearing on it,” Ralph Erickson, NNSA's site manager for Los Alamos, says of the decision to draft a new environmental document. “Would we have done it anyway? I think so.” Erickson says that he “made the call” that a new assessment was warranted as a result of construction changes at Los Alamos after the original document was prepared.

As SF Weekly reported last month, plans for the hot labs – part of a biodefense buildup promoted by the Bush administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – have drawn opposition not only from watchdog and disarmament groups, but also from mainstream scientists who express safety and security concerns. That's especially true of Lawrence Livermore, just 40 miles from downtown San Francisco and with nearly 7 million people living within a 50-mile radius.

The biolab plans hit a snag in December after U.S. District Judge Saundra Armstrong of Oakland temporarily suspended work on both hot labs pending arguments in the case. The judge has set a hearing for April. The DOE's withdrawal of the environmental document for Los Alamos removes it from the legal arena, leaving only the Lawrence Livermore proposal before the judge.

The watchdog lawsuit accuses Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos of failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1969 law that requires that federal projects be assessed for potential ecological impacts. When a federal agency engages in action that may significantly affect the environment, it must prepare an environmental impact statement, an exhaustive review that typically takes 18 months or more to complete.

But the Energy Department invoked a NEPA provision that relieves it of having to prepare an EIS by declaring that the planned facilities at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos will have no significant environmental impact, an idea critics deride as laughable.

The brouhaha over the biolabs comes at an inconvenient time for the University of California, which for decades has managed both Los Alamos – where the first atomic bombs were built during World War II – and Lawrence Livermore. Following security, financial, and management scandals, DOE announced that UC's management of Los Alamos is no longer assured, and that the contract will be open to other bidders in 2005.

Last week, the University of Texas board of regents voted to enter the competition to win the Los Alamos contract. In November, President Bush signed a bill requiring that contracts to manage all six national labs financed by the Energy Department – including Lawrence Livermore and even Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, overlooking the UC Berkeley campus – be put up for bid.

DOE officials say it makes sense to do germ research at the high-security nuclear labs, especially Lawrence Livermore, which is already involved in studies to detect and identify biological weapons. But critics say the environmental assessment glosses over potential threats associated with sabotage or terrorism, and gives short shrift to risks posed by earthquakes and other catastrophes.

Biolabs are classified according to the safety measures required to contain the agents they handle. The most stringent labs, categorized as Biosafety Level 4, house pathogens for which there is no known cure, such as Ebola. In BSL 3 facilities, scientists work with potentially life-threatening microorganisms such as live anthrax and bubonic plague.

The Livermore facility is to be located in a “permanent prefabricated” building of about 1,500 square feet to be placed on a concrete slab in what is now a parking lot. The structure, resembling a mobile home, is being built by an Iowa company and is to be transported to Livermore by truck. At the Livermore hot lab, scientists intend to expose up to 100 rats, mice, or guinea pigs at a time to infectious agents.

The Energy Department's pulling the plug on its environmental assessment for Los Alamos is noteworthy, say opponents, because work on the building to house the New Mexico hot lab was finished last October. “For them to come back now and talk about new circumstances and information makes no sense,” says Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. “I would say they were looking ahead to the [court hearing] and decided they didn't want to suffer embarrassment.”

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