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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Top court hears biolab case

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

The state's top judge this morning characterized the campaign to stop construction of a high-security laboratory in Boston's South End as a not-in-my-backyard squabble.

The remarks from Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Supreme Judicial Court came during arguments in a case filed by 10 Boston residents who sued to block the Biosafety Level-4 laboratory being built on Boston University's medical school campus. The lab, a cornerstone in the Bush administration's effort to combat bioterrorism, will give scientists the ability to work with the world's deadliest germs, including Ebola, plague, and anthrax.

A contingent of residents living near the lab have spent more than four years battling the facility, which is already rising along Albany Street and expected to open in the fall of 2008. The neighbors have argued that the lab's work will put their lives at risk and that BU and the National Institutes of Health, which is underwriting the facility's construction, unfairly located it in an area with a high population of minority and low-income residents.

"It sounds in the context of this case rather like a NIMBY case," Marshall said, using the acronym for "not-in-my-backyard." Marshall went on to comment that it seemed inevitable that such a laboratory would have to be built near a medical research center so that it would be accessible to infectious-disease scientists, technicians, and other health workers.

"Your honor, I strongly disagree," said Douglas Wilkins, the Anderson & Kreiger attorney who is representing the residents. "My clients just want to be safe. ... I don't accept the assumption that this has to be near a large medical area."

The case landed before the Supreme Judicial Court after the residents won a partial victory in August 2006 before a lower court judge. Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants ordered further environmental review of the lab, declaring that a decision by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs to approve the lab "was arbitrary and capricious." Gants, though, did not block construction of the $178 million building, which will include the Level-4 lab as well as other research facilities.

BU appealed Gants' ruling, and the Supreme Judicial Court decided to hear the case, bypassing an appeals court.

Klare Allen, a stalwart opponent of the lab, said in an interview after the hearing that she found Marshall's depiction of the case as a NIMBY dispute "very insulting. We've been very careful in saying we don't think this project should be built anywhere, period."

The attorney for BU, John M. Stevens, told the judges there was no evidence from the operations of other Biosafety Level-4 labs in the United States that the BU lab would pose a danger to neighbors.

The Supreme Judicial Court did not indicate when it will rule.

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