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Environmental Justice Denied: Why the BU Bio-Terror Lab Must Be Stopped

by Klare X Allen and Vicky Steinitz

This article appears in the Poor People's United Fund Newsletter.

Klare AllenThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Fair treatment means  "no group of people should have to deal with an unequal share of the harmful environmental effects that happen because of policies or operations run by businesses or government.” Meaningful involvement means that “potentially affected community residents have an appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions.

In Massachusetts, the Environmental Justice Policy of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) aims to remedy “the disproportionate share of environmental burdens experienced by lower-income people and communities of color who, at the same time, often lack environmental assets in their neighborhoods. The policy is designed to help ensure their protection from environmental pollution as well as promote community involvement in planning and environmental decision-making to maintain and/or enhance the environmental quality of their neighborhoods.”

Noble words, indeed! But how do we reconcile them with the National Institutes of Health’s decision to approve Boston University’s application to build The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) adjacent to low income, densely populated, Roxbury/ South End communities? Funded in the aftermath of 9/11, this lab proposes to research the most deadly, infectious, incurable pathogens known to man such as Ebola, Marburg virus, and the plague, all of which are agents that can be used in bioterrorism and biowarfare.

According to the terms of the grant, the lab's work for the first 20 years of its operation must be devoted to biodefense research focused on these deadly pathogens. Yet rather than distancing such work from the city's most vulnerable citizens, the lab, located on Albany Street, overshadows the community's most at-risk groups, including guests of Rosie's Place, children enrolled in Orchard Park Elementary School, and residents of the Cathedral housing development. In light of these facts, how can we understand the Commonwealth’s decision in 2004 to approve permits for the lab despite BU’s refusal to meet with Roxbury residents and despite the potential dangers to the neighboring communities?

The Roxbury Safety Net and the Stop the BU Bio-Terror Lab Coalition have organized and fought for more than ten years to keep Boston University and the National Institutes of Health first from building and then, since 2009, from operating this bio lab. At the beginning, no one except perhaps Klare X. Allen, the Lead Community Organizer, thought we would succeed in stopping the lab. After all, the whole political establishment supported BU’s application and NIH had awarded 28 million dollars to BU to build the NEIDL.

Early in the process we found scientists, medical personnel, and first responder experts who stood with us to challenge NIH’s and BU’s claims that the lab's work would pose "little to no" or "negligible" risks to our communities. In growing coalition with health care providers, peace activists, faith groups, students, and concerned citizens, we continue to counter these claims. We have also been able to retain pro bono legal assistance to present our arguments in court.

In 2007, our case was brought before the MA Supreme Judicial Court whose judges ruled that the Risk Assessment (RA) in BU’s Final Environmental Impact Report was arbitrary and capricious. We devised an alternative "USE" for the NEIDL and continue to argue that instead of introducing deadly, incurable diseases to our city, the NEIDL needs to research public health threats to the community such as asthma, AIDS, and other communicable diseases.

It took NIH and BU more than five years to redo the Risk Assessment. Both NIH and EOEEA recently approved the latest submission; however, we remain unconvinced of its integrity and will be back in court to appeal these decisions.

We cannot fathom the RA’s conclusion that the densely populated urban NEIDL site is no more risky than alternative suburban and rural sites. The report stresses BU’s efforts to create a “culture of safety” in the lab, but their past record of negligence and failure to acknowledge accidents does not engender confidence: we cannot feel assured that a culture of safety will be created or that it will be sustained over time.

The analysis of the risks from malevolent actors is equally troublesome. “Malevolent acts were not considered. . . because the potential number of scenarios is limitless and the likelihood of attack is unknowable,” reads the risk assessment. We are told that a security analysis was done, but it is classified and cannot be made public. Why should we trust this security analysis and why should we believe that we will be told about security concerns or breaches when they arise?

Essentially, we are being asked to have faith when our questions have not been answered and nothing in the history of this project gives us grounds for trust. This is a lab conceived as part of the war on terror, but the collateral damage from this war will occur in our community. It must be stopped in 2013!

(Klare X Allen is the Lead Community Organizer of the Roxbury Safety Net. Vicky Steinitz is the Coordinator of the Greater Boston Committee of the Stop the BU Bioterror Lab Coalition.)

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