Top Secret Livermore Lab Opens
February 4, 2008
David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor
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.
Consider this from a previous story:
Lab fined $450,000 for mishandling anthrax
A former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist who lacked proper credentials sent off an uninspected package containing two open vials of deadly pathogen anthrax across the country in 2005, triggering a $450,000 federal fine against the lab, authorities say.
The scientist, who resigned her post at the Livermore lab after the incident, left the twist caps off two containers and a loose cap on a third vial in a 1,025-vial shipment to Palm Beach, Fla., in September 2005, according to the findings of a federal agency’s review that led to the fine.
The lab in Florida then opened the anthrax shipment without proper precautions, and two of its workers were possibly exposed. The workers were treated with the antibiotic Cipro for a week, then returned to work.
A second shipment of about 3,000 vials made the next day by the same Lawrence Livermore scientist to a lab in Virginia had more vials than it should have, a separate violation of packaging restrictions. The scientist’s official credentials vouching for her ability to ship the pathogen had lapsed at the time of the shipments.
The fine was levied against the University of California - the former manager of the lab - as part of a recently reached negotiated settlement that became public at a congressional hearing about the safety of the government’s pathogen research programs. A key finding was that lab officials failed to inspect the shipments to ensure they were properly packaged and that labeling accurately reflected the contents.
Lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton said no anthrax leaked from the vials in the Florida shipment, and that the inner packaging would have trapped any anthrax if it had.
However, the government summary of the incident concluded: “During the transfers, anthrax was released from the shipped vials.”
Houghton said the lab has made a total of 30 shipments in the last six years without other incident. She noted that the 2005 case led to a seven-month shutdown of all the lab’s anthrax-related research for an audit, reorganization and retraining. In April 2006, the lab earned a three-year renewal of its registration to handle biological agents.
A citizen group, Tri-Valley CAREs, seized on the incident as an example of the danger to the community posed by the lab, as well as a new lab that has yet to open.
Marylia Kelley, the head of the group and who lives across from the lab, said lab officials “deliberately withheld important information” and lied about the magnitude of the incident, which was originally described as an inner packaging problem of an unnamed biological agent. It never mentioned anthrax.
“We now know that was a deception,” Kelley said in a statement. “The lab disclosed only one aspect of a major accident involving multiple violations of law and regulation and resulting in the release of a dangerous pathogen.”
Houghton said that with the renewal of its registration, the lab has a new oversight system, training and procedures. She said the federal Department of Transportation concluded the problem shipments amounted to “an isolated incident.”
“The registration allows our laboratory to continue necessary research on behalf of the nation,” the lab said in a statement.