Federal judge rules in favor of BU’s biolab; one local review remains

A federal court has ruled that Boston University can proceed with its decade-long push to study some of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases in a South End laboratory, a decision that leaves the university needing only permission from local health officials before the controversial research can begin.

“While the community has understandable concerns about the wisdom of locating the facility in a highly populated urban area,” US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris wrote in a decision issued late Monday, the final federal assessment of risks posed to the public from accidents or “malevolent acts is extremely low, or beyond reasonably foreseeable.”

Saris also concluded that the probability of infection is so low that “none is likely to occur for any of the [germs studied] over the proposed 50-year lifetime of the Biolab.”

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The decision clears the way for final review by the Boston Public Health Commission.

Boston University spokesman Steve Burgay said the court’s decision “affirms our view that this type of research can be done safely in Boston.”

The decision noted that two groups of independent scientists reviewed studies that analayzed potential public health risks posed by the laboratory, an approach that, Burgay said, ensured that the science used in those studies was “rock solid.”

Neighborhood residents and environmentalists have long challenged the project, saying officials have not thoroughly considered health risks in such a densely populated area. While their federal challenge is now settled, they still have a lawsuit pending in state superior court.

A December hearing is scheduled in that case. The state court hasn’t issued any orders that would keep BU from proceeding with research on the most deadly germs, known as BSL-4, but BU said it does not intend to move forward until the state suit is resolved.

The 192,000-square-foot BU building where the research would be conducted has sat largely vacant since construction was completed roughly five years ago, as federal reviews and the legal challenges dragged on. But BU opened a small portion of the building, a BSL-2 lab, last year for work on less dangerous germs.