LANL Releases Environmental Assessment for Biological-Safety Lab

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) released an Environmental Assessment for the proposed Biological-Safety Lab 3 (or BSL-3) facility this week, which outlines LANL's plan to build a new facility for manipulation and storage of infectious microorganisms. A BSL-3 is a laboratory devoted to the study of live biological agents that may cause diseases with severe or lethal consequences, such as anthrax, tuberculosis, smallpox or plague. LANL is currently working with the DNA of these agents under level 2 approval.

In the assessment, the Department of Energy (or DOE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (or NNSA) claim that expanded biological work at LANL would support DOE and NNSA's mission of "reducing counter threats from weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, chemical and biological." However, this facility would create up to 50 pounds of potentially deadly waste every week, including contaminated clothing and petri dishes. LANL's plan indicates that the waste would be autoclaved, which is a process that kills bacteria through a combination of heat and pressure. After the waste has been autoclaved, LANL proposes to bury the waste at the Caja del Rio landfill in Santa Fe County, after the Los Alamos County landfill closes in 2004. The Solid Waste Management Agency, composed of Santa Fe city and county elected officials, voted in favor of granting "conceptual approval" to negotiate with Los Alamos County about taking the waste last month. The vote was made before the environmental assessment was released revealing that waste from the proposed facility may be disposed in the Santa Fe landfill.

NNSA proposed three alternatives for the facility. The first two proposals involved using prefabricated buildings to house BSL-2 and 3 facilities, either permanently or for a period of 12 to 18 months while a permanent facility is built. In the third proposal, NNSA would not operate a BSL-3 on LANL property, and NNSA's BSL-3 needs would be met at other facilities, such as the University of New Mexico Medical School in Albuquerque. The assessment states that this option "would not meet the NNSA's identified purpose and need for action."

The effects of the BSL-3 on the environment would be mostly related to human health effects. According to the assessment, it is difficult to measure the risk to BSL workers, and there are potential exposure risks through accidental inoculation with a needle prick or inhalation of dangerous biological agents through aerosol emissions. Nevertheless, the report claims that, "No cases of illnesses are expected to result of ... an abnormal event or accident."

In February 2001, the DOE's Inspector General's Office released a report that concluded that DOE's biological select agent activities suffered from "insufficient organization, coordination and direction." Also, DOE's activities "lacked sufficient Federal 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]."

There will be a public information meeting to discuss the BSL-3 on Wednesday, November 14th, from 4:00 to7:00pm at the Los Alamos Inn, in Los Alamos. Public comment on the report is being accepted from now until November 19th, although CCNS is requesting an extension of the comment period.

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