Watchdog Group Sues DOE for More Detailed Environmental Impact Statement for LANL's BSL-3 Laboratories

Santa Fe based watchdog group Nuclear Watch of New Mexico filed a federal lawsuit this week alleging that the Environmental Assessment for the Biosafety Level 3 (or BSL-3) laboratories at Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) is grossly inadequate. The suit is also requesting that a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (or PEIS) for both the BSL-3 and the activities of the entire Department of Energy (or DOE) Chemical and Biological National Security Program, of which the BSL-3 is a part, be prepared.

LANL currently operates BSL-2 laboratories, which allow for research and handling of DNA samples of infectious bioagents, including anthrax, tuberculosis, smallpox and plague. A BSL-3 laboratory allows for handling of live samples of such agents. The facility would cost $3.5 million and cover 3,000 square feet, which would house one BSL-2 laboratory and two BSL-3 laboratories.

DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration (or NNSA) released a finding of no significant impact to human health or the environment from the BSL-3 earlier this year. The decision was based on a final Environmental Assessment released in February 2002. However, Nuclear Watch has found several problems with the Assessment, and they claim that the Assessment fails to address issues that are required to be examined under the National Environmental Policy Act. For example, the Environmental Assessment fails to outline the entire scope of the project, including specifying which bioagents LANL would be allowed to work with, and the volume or inventory of bioagents that LANL would be allowed to maintain. Jay Coghlan, of Nuclear Watch, said, "In effect, [LANL] writes itself a virtual blank check for the spectrum of infectious agents that it could work with in the future."

Nuclear Watch also cites security concerns that are not addressed in the Environmental Assessment. For example, LANL plans to ship the live bioagents through the U.S. Postal Service, which raises concerns that postal carriers may become targets for theft by people or organizations who may wish to obtain these deadly materials. The Assessment also fails to address transportation concerns, despite the shoddy transportation record for the current BSL-2 facility. For example, in October 2001, an improperly marked shipment of virulent anthrax was sent to LANL by Northern Arizona University, although LANL had no facilities, nor permission, to handle the virulent bioagent.

In addition, the Assessment did not address the structural integrity of the BSL-3 facility. LANL continues to consider building the facility at Technical Area 3 (or TA-3), although the Assessment admits that TA-3 sits directly over the Rendija fault line, which has the potential for seismic activity as extreme as a magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale.

There has been enormous public outcry against the BSL-3 laboratories. Throughout the process, citizens have requested a more in-depth environmental analysis of the facility, including members of New Mexico's congressional delegation. CCNS and Peace Action New Mexico also collected more than 3,000 letters and petition signatures.

Nuclear Watch is uncertain about the direction that the case will take next. However, the group requested an injunction to stop any construction or operation of the BSL-3 facility, which LANL representatives have indicated may begin in the middle of October.

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