State environmental regulators are taking the unusual step of commissioning a prestigious national panel of scientists to independently review a research laboratory being built in the South End where the world's deadliest germs will be studied.
The move by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs appears to signal that the state is taking a hard look at the environmental implications of the lab being built by Boston University in the heart of its medical school campus. The agency is paying the National Research Council $50,000 to conduct an analysis of the facility, known as a Biosafety Level-4 lab, where scientists will search for treatments and vaccines targeting microscopic killers such as Ebola, plague, and anthrax.
A state judge ordered the Massachusetts environmental agency last year to conduct a further review of the project, a cornerstone in the Bush administration's campaign to prepare the nation for potential acts of bioterrorism.
The National Research Council, an independent body chartered by Congress, will examine whether a recent federal analysis of the lab adequately considered the worst-case scenarios if lethal germs escaped from the facility, which is the centerpiece of a research tower already substantially completed on Albany Street.
Robert Keough, spokesman for the state environmental agency, said Friday that the independent analysis is necessary to help Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian A. Bowles reach a deci sion about the safety of the lab, scheduled to open in about a year. Keough said he could not recall another time when the agency had sought the assistance of the National Research Council. The lab will need the approval of the state environmental agency in order to operate.
"This is a challenging project to assess fully from an environmental standpoint," Keough said. "The analysis that is required on the worst-case scenario aspect of the project involves issues that are not routinely before our environmental agencies.
"It made sense to get some outside expertise to make sure [Bowles] fully understood whether this analysis was adequate or not," he said.
Ten specialists convened by the research council are scheduled to conduct a hearing Friday in Washington, taking testimony from BU and opponents of the facility.
BU won a hard-fought national competition in 2003 to build the lab, which is expected to cost almost $200 million and is largely underwritten by the National Institutes of Health.
Foes of the project, known formally as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, hailed the state's decision to engage the outside specialists.
"This should have been done five years ago, this should have been done before a single dime was spent by the federal government," said Eloise P. Lawrence, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, which sued in federal court to block the project. "We're very pleased the Patrick administration is taking this very seriously, that they are hiring an independent panel of experts, not politicos. That's a huge step in the right direction."
BU administrators said in a statement that they look forward to working with the state and the advisory panel as they conduct their investigations.
The review by the National Research Council focuses on an NIH study released in August that concluded the lab does not present a serious threat to the neighborhood's safety and that it would not have been safer if located in a less congested area.
The NIH study factors heavily in the state environmental review, and Massachusetts authorities said they are hopeful the research council will "determine whether the scientific analyses in the NIH study are sound and credible," Keough said.
The NIH researchers compared what would happen if germs migrated from the lab into its South End neighborhood with what might happen if the lab had instead been built on more secluded property owned by BU in Tyngsborough or Peterborough, N.H. The report concluded that even if an accident happened in the lab "under realistic conditions, infectious diseases would not occur in the communities as a result."
The study also concluded that "there was no difference in simulated disease transmission among the urban, suburban, or rural communities."
The state expects the review of the federal analysis to be completed by the end of November.
Stephen Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.