Inside Bay Area
New lab to study deadly diseases
The biodefense agency considers 7,000 acre site near Tracy
By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER
On rolling, grassy hills between the Bay Area's cities and the farms of the Central Valley, the University of California and scientists of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory see a sprawling biodefense lab as large as two Wal-Mart Supercenters.
Federal Homeland Security Department authorities gave the nod Wednesday to the university and its 7,000-acre site near Tracy, along with 17 other proposals nationwide as contenders for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, pronounced "EN-BAF."
Originally, this new lab was intended as a replacement for Plum Island, a 1950s-era federal facility off Long Island where dangerous animal diseases are studied.
But lately, the Department of Homeland Security has retreated from talk of closing Plum Island and suggested a role for ENBAF as the animal counterpart to the top-secret, human biodefense lab being built inside the Army's Fort Dietrick in Maryland. There, in buildings that are themselves entirely classified, researchers expect to step into the shoes of terrorists and create biowarfare agents, in order to devise defenses against them.
The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would be four times larger — 500,000 square feet — and study "high consequence biological threats" involving human or animal diseases or having the potential to jump from animals to humans. Federal grants for the lab run to $451 million.
The University of California and Lawrence Livermore lab are proposing construction in the middle of the lab's Site 300, a once-remote explosives testing area.
University officials have rounded up endorsements from the mayor of Livermore to U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, and from the state Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura to the California cattlemen's and poultry associations.
"I think all of these individuals realize this could have a wonderful trickle-down effect for California and the Tri-Valley," said Livermore lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton. "It could provide 200-300 new jobs, and it could show California really can lead in this area."
Much of the new lab would operate at Biosafety Level 3, a category of biocontainment used for plague and tularemia. But some of the lab, perhaps a fifth or more, would operate at Biosafety Level 4, the highest level of biocontainment. BSL4 is reserved for diseases having no known vaccine such as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, foot and mouth disease or avian flu and requiring researchers to wear "moonsuits" inside airlocked labs.
In these labs, scientists would seek ways to detect and treat animal-human diseases but also "assess and research evolving bioterrorism threatsover the next five decades," according to a Department of Homeland Security summary.
"You're talking about a BSL4 facility handling large, hooved animals infected with BSL4 agents, so this is a very serious lab," said Edward Hammond, co-leader of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit group that monitors research involving biowarfare agents.
Federal officials have not elaborated on exactly which microorganisms would be studied in the new lab and the degree to which those germs would be modified. The university rejected a request by Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment, a Livermore lab watchdog group, for a copy of its proposal.
"These guys just really don't like transparency, and this double standard is really bothersome," Hammond said.
Marylia Kelley, the head of Tri-Valley CAREs, said the new lab is worrisome on several fronts.
"If an agricultural disease were to get loose from this facility, it would be devastating to the state's economy," she said.
Twenty-nine teams, mostly led by U.S. universities, leaped to make proposals. On Wednesday, the Homeland Security Department narrowed the list to 18 teams in 11 states. A smaller list of semi-finalists will be visited by federal officials in October, and the finalists will be evaluated in a full, environmental impact study over the next year, with a final decision in July 2008 and operations in 2013.