Bio Lab in Galveston Raises Concerns
Much of the University of Texas medical school on this island suffered flood damage during Hurricane Ike, except for one gleaming new building, a national biological defense laboratory that will soon house some of the most deadly diseases in the world.
How a laboratory where scientists plan to study viruses like Ebola and Marburg ended up on a barrier island where hurricanes regularly wreak havoc puzzles some environmentalists and community leaders.
“It’s crazy, in my mind,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer in Houston. “I just find an amazing willingness among the people on the Texas coast to accept risks that a lot of people in the country would not accept.”
Officials at the laboratory and at the National Institutes of Health, which along with the university is helping to pay for the $174 million building, say it can withstand any storm the Atlantic hurls at it.
Built atop concrete pylons driven 120 feet into the ground, the seven-floor laboratory was designed to stand up to 140-mile-an-hour winds. Its backup generators and high-security laboratories are 30 feet above sea level.
“The entire island can wash away and this is still going to be here,” Dr. James W. LeDuc, the deputy director of the laboratory, said. “With Hurricane Ike, we had no damage. The only evidence the hurricane occurred was water that was blown under one of the doors and a puddle in the lobby.”
The project enjoyed the strong support of three influential Texas Republicans: President Bush, a former Texas governor; Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison; and the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, whose district includes part of Galveston County. Officials at the National Institutes of Health, however, say the decision to put the lab here was based purely on the merits. It is to open Nov. 11.
Dr. LeDuc acknowledged that hurricanes would disrupt research. Each time a hurricane approaches the island, scientists will have to stop their experiments and exterminate many of the viruses and bacteria they are studying.
And Hurricane Ike did not provide the worst-case test the laboratory will someday face, some critics say. Ike’s 100-m.p.h. winds were on the low side for a hurricane, yet it still flooded most of the island’s buildings. The university’s teaching hospital, on the same campus as the lab, has been shut down for more than a month.
“The University of Texas should consider locating its biohazards lab away from Galveston Island and out of harm’s way,” Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said. “As destructive as it was, Hurricane Ike was only a Category 2 storm. A more powerful storm would pose an even greater threat of a biohazards release.”
The laboratory is one of two the Bush administration pushed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The second is being built at Boston University Medical Center, where it met stiff community resistance.
Not so in Texas, where there was hardly a whimper of protest. For starters, the University of Texas Medical Branch is one of the largest employers on the island of 57,000 people.
In addition, the leaders of the medical school skillfully sold community leaders and politicians on the high-tech safety measures at the lab and on the economic boon to Galveston, an impoverished town in need of the 300 jobs the laboratory would bring.
University leaders met twice a month with community leaders for several years to dispel fears of pathogens escaping. Then they created a permanent advisory committee of residents that included some of their critics.
The campaign to win over residents was effective. In 2004, the university built a small laboratory and won federal approval to study extremely lethal pathogens there. The smaller laboratory — named for Dr. Robert E. Shope, a virus expert — helped persuade federal officials it was feasible to erect the national laboratory next to it.
Nonetheless, some community members remain skeptical about the safety measures.
“It is not a geographically good location, and the safety measures are only as good as the people who work there,” said Jackie Cole, a former City Council member who now serves on a citizen’s advisory board for the laboratory.
Other environmentalists who might have fought the project were bogged down in a battle against a liquid natural gas plant that was to be built in Texas City, a refinery town across a narrow channel from the island.
“It kind of went under the radar,” said Bob Stokes, who heads the Galveston Bay Foundation, a group dedicated to cleaning up water pollution.
Dr. LeDuc and other scientists at the laboratory say it is almost impossible for diseases to escape. The air pressure in the laboratories is kept lower than in surrounding hallways. Even if the double doors into the laboratories are opened accidentally, air rushes in, carrying pathogens up and away through vents to special filters, which are periodically sterilized with formaldehyde and then incinerated.
All the laboratory tables have hoods that suck contaminated air through the vents to the filters, as do the rooms themselves. Liquid waste, feces and urine go to tanks on the first floor, where it is heated to a temperature at which nothing can survive before being put into the sewage system.
Other waste — carcasses of laboratory animals and disposable lab equipment — is sterilized in autoclaves, giant steam-pressure cookers, before being incinerated off site, Dr. LeDuc said.
When hurricanes threaten the island, researchers will shut down their experiments at least 24 hours before landfall, decontaminate the labs and then move the stocks of deadly pathogens into freezers on upper floors, where they are kept at 70 below zero, Dr. Joan Nichols, an associate director of research, said.
Even if the emergency power system were to fail, the freezers can keep the samples of killer diseases dormant for about four days, she said.
The precautions are necessary. The laboratory will do research into some of the nastiest diseases on the planet, among them Ebola, anthrax, tularemia, West Nile virus, drug-resistant tuberculosis, bubonic plague, avian influenza and typhus.
In the top-level secure laboratories, where deadly filoviruses like Ebola are studied, the scientists work in pressurized spacesuits inside rooms with airtight steel doors. Before leaving the secured area, they take a chemical shower for eight minutes in their suits, then a conventional shower, Dr. LeDuc said.
The university’s bid for the laboratory benefited from friends in Washington. Mr. DeLay, who resigned from Congress in 2006, pushed hard to bring the project to his district, as did Mrs. Hutchison, who sits on the Appropriations Committee.
On a visit to Galveston with Mr. Delay in 2005, Mr. Bush said: “This hospital is going to be the Texas center for bioshield research, to help us make sure that our country is well prepared as we engage in the war on terror. No better place, by the way, to do substantial research than right here at the University of Texas.”
Galveston’s medical school has long had a top-notch faculty in infectious diseases; the school’s proposal beat out bids from the University of California, Davis, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Wadsworth Center in Albany, among others.
Dr. Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, an agency of the National Institutes of Health, said politics played no role in the decision to build the lab here. The threat of hurricanes was outweighed, she said, by the presence of some of the best virologists in the country, she said.
“You could put it out in the middle of nowhere and it would be a safe, secure facility,” Dr. Hirschberg, a molecular biologist, said. “But the research wouldn’t get done.”