DOE Will Prepare Environmental Impact Statement for Biosafety Level-3 Facility
The Department of Energy (DOE) announced recently that they will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate the impact of operations at the proposed Biosafety Level-3 facility (BSL-3) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
The United States identified an emerging security threat posed by the possible use of biological weapons. As a result, DOE decided to construct a BSL-3 facility at LANL. This facility would perform research and development activities with biological agents to meet this potential threat.
An Environmental Impact Statement documents and reviews the impact of a facility on the surrounding community. It reviews such factors as accidents, socioeconomics, environmental justice and cumulative effects.
In 2002, DOE completed a superficial analysis of the hazards associated with the proposed BSL-3 facility, called an Environmental Assessment. The assessment claimed that the facility would have "no significant impact on human health or the environment."
BSL-3 status would mean that LANL would be allowed to work with samples of anthrax, tuberculosis, smallpox and plague. The adverse effects of the BSL-3 on the environment and the surrounding community would be mostly health related. According to the assessment, it is difficult to measure the risk to BSL-3 workers. There are potential exposure risks through accidental inoculation with a needle prick or inhalation of dangerous biological agents through aerosol emissions.
Furthermore, in February 2001 the Inspector General Office of the Department of Energy released a report that concluded that DOE's biological agent activities suffered from "insufficient organization, coordination and direction." Also, DOE's activities "lacked sufficient [f]ederal oversight, consistent policy, and standardized implementing procedures, resulting in the potential for a greater risk to workers and possibly others from exposure to biological ... agents ... maintained by [DOE]."
Despite these serious concerns DOE began preparations, including the construction of the facility, without a rigorous analysis of the environmental impact.
Two citizen groups, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, filed suit against DOE demanding a full Environmental Impact Statement. The primary argument of the lawsuit was that a full investigation was necessary because of the troubled history of safety, security and environmental issues at LANL coupled with the highly dangerous nature of the bio-warefare agents involved.
In 2004 DOE withdrew its approval for the LANL BSL-3 facility, and has now announced its intent to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement. As a part of the investigation, DOE is holding three public meetings in the communities surrounding LANL. These meetings provide the opportunity for the public to discuss concerns regarding the Environmental Impact Statement with DOE officials.
Activists are hopeful that the Environmental Impact Statement will bring safety to the forefront of DOE's decision on the BSL-3 facility. Jay Coghlan, of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said, "The Los Alamos Biolab cries out for a more stringent level of public review before operations begin, and now New Mexicans get that opportunity. But on a cautionary note, we need to be careful that DOE doesn't use this opportunity to expand planed operations."