Congressman Markey Questions Legality of Mail-Order Anthrax Sent to LANL

Biosafety Level-3 Laboratory Comment Period Extended to January 15, 2002.

* Congressman Edward Markey wrote a letter this week to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham questioning the circumstances under which Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) requested, received and tested virulent anthrax it was not authorized to possess. Markey is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chairman of the Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation. The virulent anthrax shipment was sent from Northern Arizona University to LANL on October 26th.

LANL is not authorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC) to receive virulent shipments. LANL reported that it "was in transition through internal processes to implement procedures to operate under an exception Sť that allows transfer of select agent materials in support of law enforcement activities." If LANL was operating under an exception, Markey asked Abraham which law enforcement agency had requested LANL support.

Representative Markey said, "This is not a time for anyone, especially a Government lab, to be playing fast and loose with security rules. We need to increase the security associated with the handling of dangerous biological agents, not allow the rules to be broken."

In 1996 Congressman Markey introduced the "Biological Weapons Control Act of 1996." In order to keep track of these materials, the bill included requirements for the transfer and receipt of select bioagents. The bill was signed into law as part of the "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996." The law requires that any laboratory working with samples of virulent anthrax to either be classified by the CDC as a Biological Safety Level-3 (or BSL-3) laboratory, or to obtain an exemption to handle the virulent bioagent. Last month the House voted to expand the 1996 law to require that all select agents be registered with CDC.

LANL currently operates Biosafety Level-2 laboratories for working on the DNA of bioagents. Markey questioned whether LANL had applied to the CDC for an exemption to work on virulent anthrax samples and asked Abraham to provide documentation.

Markey commented, "At a time when we are all concerned that dangerous biological agents are not secure from terrorists, I am stunned to discover that a government nuclear weapons laboratory broke the rules. Unfortunately, this is just the latest installment in a long history of security violations at DOE laboratories, a situation that is even more alarming given the events of September 11." possibly three to four years.

* On December 17, the National Nuclear Security Administration (orNNSA) announced that the public comment period for its proposal toconstruct and operate a Biological Safety Level-3 (or BSL-3) laboratory atLANL has been reopened for 30 days. On October 29th, three days afterreceiving the virulent anthrax shipment from Northern Arizona University,the NNSA released its draft Environmental Assessment on the proposal. The comment period on the draft will now end on January 15, 2002.

While activists consider the extension of time "good news," theybelieve that a 120-day comment period is necessary and that, because of the complexity of the proposal, NNSA should prepare a more complete analysis of the proposal in an environmental impact statement.

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