H/T Beth

Commissioners to consider asking for study of Detrick lab expansion
By Justin M. Palk, Staff Writer
The FrederickNews-Post

Frederick’s commissioners will vote Thursday whether to ask Sen. Barbara Mikulski to support a National Research Council study of plans to expand biodefense labs at Fort Detrick.

The proposal was put on the agenda by Commissioner David Gray and authored by Board of County Commissioners President Jan Gardner.

Gardner said the study would be both more informative and less confrontational than a lawsuit that had been proposed earlier.

“My take on it is that it’s a good alternative solution,” she said. “I think it will provide assurances to the public that the processes are being followed, that public health will be protected.”

Although the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases was aware there had been discussions about an external review, the county has not officially brought the idea to the institute, Caree Vander Linden, the institute’s spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

USAMRIID doesn’t believe another study is necessary, she wrote.

“We are confident that we have fulfilled the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act … We therefore see no reason for additional taxpayer funds to be spent to commission another study when we expect the outcome to be the same,” Vander Linden wrote.

Mikulski’s position on the expansion hasn’t changed since December, when she called on the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a forum to discuss the public’s concerns, according to an e-mail from her spokeswoman, Melissa Schwartz. She has remained in contact with both the commissioners and Fort Detrick’s leadership on the matter.

USAMRIID plans to expand its labs, including the biosecurity level-4 spaces where researchers study agents with a high risk of causing life-threatening disease for which no vaccine or therapy is available.

Expansion opponents have said the proposal’s environmental impact statement failed to adequately examine whether the lab should be built elsewhere and discounts public safety concerns.

Citizens opposed to the expansion will also be filing a petition with the Army calling for a National Research Council study, said Beth Willis, one of the county residents who has spoken out against the project.

The NRC has done studies like this on other controversial Army projects, such as the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles, she said.

While there is no guarantee of what the results of such a study would be, the National Research Council always asks probing questions with the goal of improving public safety, Willis said.

“This is pretty much … a win-win for everybody,” she said. “(Fort Detrick) can show their commitment to good relations with the community.”

The letter the commissioners will vote on Thursday asks for the National Research Council to address six issues, including scientifically evaluating the public health and safety risks associated with high-containment labs, and evaluating the scientific adequacy of the environmental impact statement.

Last year, a NRC study of a proposed BSL-4 lab at Boston University found that a risk assessment for that lab wasn’t based on sound and credible science.

As a result of the NRC study, the National Institutes of Health, one of the lab’s sponsors, are undertaking more reviews of the project, which will likely delay the lab’s opening, said Don Ralbovsky, a NIH spokesman