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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense
An Interview with Mary Wulff
Mary Wulff is a former, veteran law enforcement
officer from Southern California, who moved to the Bitterroot Valley
of Montana in 1990. Mary began networking with other concerned citizens
as well as local and national environmental groups after hearing
of the proposed Level 4 BioLab in Hamilton. She formed the Coalition
for a Safe Lab in the summer of 2002.
The Coalition for a Safe Lab is a Montana non-profit group whose
mission is "to provide the public with accurate and current
information about issues surrounding the proposed BioSafety Level
4 lab upgrade at Rocky Mountain Labs, and to encourage active citizen
involvement in the preservation of public safety and environmental
quality in and around our community."
What is your most significant fear/concern
about the government-proposed high level (BSL-3 and 4) labs?
First, I have to say that I do not like to use the word "fear"
when referring to the issues surrounding the Level 4 Lab. The proliferation
of these types of labs, and these types of research is based on
fear--the fear that the diseases and pathogens may be used against
us as weapons.
One of the main concerns is for the safety of our community. We
live in a small community of around 3,700 people. We live in a valley
with ingress/egress of North or South on a 2-lane highway. National
Institutes of Health has not completed any type of emergency plan,
or plan of evacuation in the event of an accidental release of deadly
pathogens from the Rocky Mountain Laboratories.
Hamilton's hospital has no isolation/quarantine room, and the nearest
isolation rooms are an hour's drive away, in Missoula, MT at St.
The government states that such labs are necessary
for preserving our national security and maintaining emergency preparedness
in case of a crises: Do you agree or disagree?
I can answer only about what I believe personally, not for the Coalition.
I disagree. If the same amount of money being put into these types
of labs was put into community health and preparedness, I believe
we would be much farther along in the "war on terror."
Spending the money on what seems to me to be redundant research,
and research on pathogens that are not likely to be used as weapons
against us, is spending money in the wrong areas. If this money
were to be utilized for healthcare and prevention, rather than research
that is been done over and over, it would be a better expenditure
The government claims that the labs are only for defensive measures.
Is it a valid fear that the activities and research in the labs
are also for offensive means to create weapons?
There is a fine line between what is considered offensive and defensive.
According to a recent
article, "'Weaponized' simply means that a biological agent
is processed so that it can be easily delivered to harm or kill
Bioterror web site explains this in greater detail:
"Q: What exactly does it mean to "weaponize" a biological
agent. How do
weaponized and nonweaponized anthrax differ?
A: "Weaponization" refers to a variety of activities aimed
at rendering a
biological pathogen more virulent, enhancing its stability and shelf-life,
and processing it so that it can be more readily delivered as a
fine-particle aerosol capable of infecting the targeted population
through the air. Non-weaponized anthrax would be in the vegetative
(non-spore) form, which would die off rapidly after dispersal. Weaponized
anthrax would be in the spore form and probably dried and milled
to a fine powder, with chemicals added to reduce clumping and to
aerosolization. It is possible that the perpetrators of the recent
attacks had only a few grams of weaponized anthrax, making delivery
through the mail the only practical means of delivery. Alternative
explanations are that they do not want to kill indiscriminately
but simply to terrorize the U.S. population, or that they plan to
escalate gradually to more extensive attacks."
According to Rocky Mountain Labs' BioSafety Committee meeting minutes,
they are considering testing aerosolized anthrax on "non-human
primates".According to the NIH in their statements to direct
questions put to them by the public, biological weapons can be present
and even created at RML. It can be kept secret from the public.
Buried several hundred pages down in the back of the Final Environmental
Impact Statement is:
"Question (62-9): Is there any law or regulation that prohibits
the presence of an agent that was designed as a biological weapon
to be present at RML? Yes__ No__.
NIH Response: No. "Please see page 1-1 of the FEIS were this
has been addressed." FEIS, Page 5-145
Question: "Is there any law or regulation that prohibits the
creation of an agent that is designed as a biological weapon to
be present at RML for study for peaceful purposes? Yes__ No__."
NIH Response: No. "Please see response to comment 62-9."
FEIS, Page 5-145
Question: "Will agents be present at RML that NIH will consider
classified information that they will refuse to disclose for any
reason, including national security reasons? Yes__ No__." FEIS,
NIH Response: ... it is possible that some information about research
conducted at the RML could be classified.
Question: "Have there been agents present whose presence NIH
has or would now consider as classified information or have or would
refuse to disclose for any reason, including national security reasons.
Yes__ No__." FEIS, Page 5-146
NIH Response: Yes. Agents that are on the NIH inventory that are
currently classified have been present at RML in the past."
The universities and sites that have placed bids to get funds and
grants from the government to host such labs claim the labs will
actually benefit the community by providing jobs and revenue: do
you agree or disagree? Why?
Possibly in the short-term, for larger cities, this may be true.
I have my doubts about the town of Hamilton seeing much of an increase
in revenue over the long-term.
In regards to the lab-related outbreaks of SARS and polio
earlier this year overseas, do such incidents justify your groups
beliefs on the safety and security of the labs?
"Accidents can happen". The lab buildings may be state-of-the-art
in design and hopefully, function; however humans still work in
According to Freedom Of Information Act documents obtained by Friends
of the Bitterroot, there have been several lab accidents at Rocky
Mountain Labs. Several lab workers were exposed to Yersinia pestis
(Plague); several workers converted to positive for Tuberculosis;
several lab workers were exposed to Chlamydia pneumoniae (one of
the pneumonia strains); recently a lab worker was infected with
Salmonella; a bag of radioactive waste was lost and never recovered;
workers are stuck with needles quite often in the lab setting.
In February 2004, a researcher at Fort Detrick pricked herself with
a needle while working with Ebola. She was quarantined (after first
going home). Though she did not get sick, the possibility does exist
that a worker could become infected after being exposed and transmit
a deadly disease to a family member, or someone else in the community.
After the anthrax attacks it was discovered that the strain of anthrax
that was used came out of one of our own U.S. Labs. I would also
refer readers to the recent article, "Lab
tightens biosafety:Department of Homeland Security alters procedures
after foot-and-mouth disease spreads in lab".
If the lab were built despite your efforts, what could the
government and the hosting facility do to make the community feel
less fearful and reassure citizens of the purpose of the lab?
The community would feel less concerned if more assurances had been
made during the initial public comment period and also if NIH officials
had been less condescending and more open during the process. Many
people who attended public meetings had specific questions and felt
that they were not being listened to or taken seriously.
A well-thought out, and well-funded emergency plan should have been
put into place during the public comment period. It is crucial to
assuring the safety and security of our community.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) did not discuss
"worst case scenarios". The document discussed if something
were to spill inside a BL-4, that it would not get out. The worst
case scenario would be if something were to get out and how that
would be handled and mitigated.
The proposed upgrade to a Level 4 facility was decided long before
public comment was sought. Before the comment period ended, Friends
of the Bitterroot (FOB) had been waiting for Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA) documents from NIH. While waiting for these documents,
FOB had been denied a fee waiver for the documents and had to go
through an attorney in an attempt to get the fee waived and obtain
the documents. The comment period ended and the Record Of Decision
was signed by NIH (on the very day the comment period ended), and
FOB has still not obtained those documents. Due to being denied
those additional documents, the community could not adequately comment
on the FEIS.
from NIAID is listed on SAMPAN's website which basically says because
we are a small community, that we are expendable:
"Located in rural western Montana well removed from major
population centers. Location of lab reduces possibility that an
accidental release of BSL-4 organisms would lead to a major public
The memo, unfortunately, it is not on letterhead and not signed,
though the FOIA officer with NIH did say that Thomas Kindt [Director
of the NIAID Division of Intramural Research] was the source of
the memo, and Kindt said an intern wrote it---the information was
obtained in our original FOIA request. [NIAID stated that the memo
is authentic but "does not reflect Institute views. The release
of the document was a mistake."]
Does your group simply want to stop the
building of the lab in your community or completely? For instance,
if the government took its plans to the next city on its list of
hosts, would you help their community fight the developments?
We do not want to stop the upgrade, though many members of our group
are against the proposed upgrade as the situation now stands.
We want to see the public process, National Environmental Protection
Act (NEPA) done by the letter. We want our community to be assured
of every possible contingency.
And yes, we would help another community in their fight of further
lab developments. There seems to be a proliferation of these types
of labs across the United States. According to Professor Richard
Ebright of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, "An increase
in BL4-containment capacity may have a negative impact on US securityby
increasing the number of locations and persons with access to BL4
agents, and thus increasing the likelihood of accidental or deliberate
release of BL4 agents".
Submitted by: Melody Parsa, 2004 intern