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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Top state court to rule on BU biolab

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

The state Supreme Judicial Court will decide whether construction of a high-security research laboratory in the South End should continue, the latest twist in the ongoing fight to block the Boston University lab.

In an action made public today, the state's highest court said it would directly hear the controversial case, bypassing an appeals court that had been scheduled to consider the matter. The SJC set a hearing for September, speeding up the legal process.

Ten neighbors of the lab, already being built on Albany Street, sued in state court to block the facility, where researchers will work with the world's deadliest germs. They also sued in federal court, blasting BU for locating the lab in a densely populated neighborhood with a significant number of low-income and racially diverse residents.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants in August ordered further environmental review of the $178 million project but did not halt construction.

BU appealed Gants's ruling, an appeal that was scheduled to be heard next month. But yesterday, the SJC, without explanation, issued a notice that it was taking the case.

"Generally, that means that it views the case as something that either has an important legal issue or is of general public significance," said Douglas Wilkins, the Anderson & Kreiger attorney who is representing the residents.

It is not unusual for the SJC to hear a case directly, and Wilkins said today that its action should not be interpreted as favoring one side or the other.

BU spokeswoman Ellen Berlin said the university welcomed the court's action.

"We are pleased that this important project is receiving this important scrutiny from the Supreme Judicial Court," Berlin said.

The facility, known as a Biosafety Level-4 lab, has provoked controversy since the moment it was proposed in January 2003, with a fervent contingent of scientists, environmentalists, and community activists protesting at every turn.

After their objections failed to stop the project at the city or state level, opponents turned to the courts.

Foes of the lab hailed the decision by the high court to resolve the case.

"Finally, the residents are going to be heard," said Klare Allen, one of the residents suing to stop construction.

Earlier this week, concerns about lab safety were fanned when fire crews descended on BU after smoke wafted through a lab.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 02:05 PM
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