BU biolab gains preliminary OK to open

Massachusetts environmental officials have granted preliminary approval to allow a controversial Boston University laboratory to open for biomedical research on substances less hazardous than those that sparked opposition to the project.

In its decision, the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said that requiring the BU lab to wait until a pending final safety review is completed “would result in an undue hardship for the proponent and would not serve to avoid or minimize damage to the environment.’’

The decision, dated Dec. 2, states that there must still be one more public comment period before a final waiver will be granted that will allow BU to begin biosafety level-2 research — defined by the federal government as “involving agents that pose moderate hazards to personnel and the environment.’’

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A 14-day public comment period will begin on Dec. 7, and end Dec. 21, with a final decision to be issued within seven days after that, according to the state document.

BU said in a statement released today that the university is pleased with the preliminary waiver, which will allow it to move forward with gaining permits for the facility.

“BU researchers will focus on Tuberculosis and experiments that have been approved for the [biosafety level-2] laboratories,’’ the statement said. “They expect to begin work in early 2012.’’

For years, the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory — a high-security biolab designed to allow scientists to conduct research on the world’s deadliest germs, such as Ebola and plague — has been tied up by legal challenges and regulatory reviews.

As the legal process dragged on, the 192,000-square-foot building has sat largely empty. In August, BU sought a waiver from the state to proceed with research on less hazardous materials in a biosafety level-2 lab in a section of the facility.

A spokeswoman for BU said today that the university is not abandoning plans to eventually use about 16 percent of the building, located on its medical campus in the South End, as a biosafety level-4 lab. However those plans are still undergoing an environmental safety review by the National Institutes of Health.

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The state’s draft decision regarding the biosafety level-2 opening notes that BU estimates it may take as much as another year before that final risk assessment on the level-4 lab is completed and reviewed by Massachusetts officials.

“The proponents best estimate is that [biosafety level-4] research would not begin until October 2013 at the earliest,’’ the document says.

Klare Allen, a community organizer with Safety Net, a neighborhood group that opposes the lab, said she was surprised permission had been granted to proceed with level-2 research.

“All the Safety Net and coalition group is trying to do is to make sure that the city of Boston is truly safe,’’ Allen said. “This is a fight for our safety and for us to know what the hell is cooking in our backyard.’’

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