Bush's war on terrorism comes West

A small Montana town could become a center for bioterrorism research

  • THE BEST DEFENSE: The Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton are slated for an upgrade, which would allow scientists there to study everything from smallpox to Ebola

    (Chad Harder photo)

HAMILTON, Mont. - The "nightmarish tools of mass destruction," as one recent letter to the local newspaper calls them, may soon be under study in a complex of laboratories in this small town.

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health announced plans to expand the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton to include a new "biosafety level 4" lab capable of accommodating the deadliest microbes on the planet. The upgrade comes in preparation for a potential bioterrorist attack against the U.S.

For the scientists who work in the labs, it represents an exciting professional opportunity - like having the federal government plop a well-funded university into a town where good-paying jobs are as rare as hemorrhagic fever.

But the labs' proposed $66.5 million upgrade has drawn criticism from locals, who question the wisdom of this type of research in their pleasant tourist town in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, about 40 miles south of Missoula. Organisms that require a biosafety level 4 facility include anthrax, smallpox and hemorraghic fever viruses such as Ebola, which causes fatal internal bleeding.

Concerned residents have formed a grassroots group called Coalition for a Safe Lab. "There's a general concern that this is happening too fast," says Linda Perry, a Hamilton veterinarian and a former Rocky Mountain Laboratories employee who is working with the coalition. Perry doesn't oppose the project, but is seeking answers to some tough questions: Is the town of Hamilton prepared to handle a public health emergency in the event of a lab accident? Are Rocky Mountain Laboratories scientists ready for biosafety level 4 work? And why, of all places, put this lab in Hamilton?

What's the rush?

The Rocky Mountain Laboratories' stately old research facility, built in the 1920s, has blended nicely into its leafy residential surroundings. The building is ringed by a moat, constructed to keep ticks from escaping the lab, where tick-born fevers were once under study. Though no water courses through it anymore, the "tick moat," as it's affectionately called, is a reminder of the days when a bioterrorist might have been an errant insect that could be seen with the naked eye and squashed under the heel of a boot.

The planned biosafety 4 lab, on the other hand, is something straight out of a science fiction movie: It will include spacesuit-clad scientists, air-lock buffer zones and chemical decontamination. These will be necessary precautions in a scientific quest for vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for diseases caused by microbial agents of biological terrorism.

But the plans have prompted rumors. Mary Wulff, who spearheads the Coalition for a Safe Lab, suspects that the labs are working in conjunction with the Department of Defense to turn biodefense research into bioweaponry.

Nothing could be further from the truth, says Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, the labs' parent agency. "People don't fully appreciate the difference between biowarfare and biodefense," he says; the research will result in vaccines and better diagnostic tests, not weapons.

Still, Wulff isn't the only one who thinks things are happening too quickly. "Is this the best way to spend our money, building and upgrading these facilities? Do we need these new labs?" asks Van Blackwood, project director for the weapons of mass destruction program of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. "I think a lot of people would like to see a better analysis of what the (bioterrorism) threat is."

Another skeptic is Richard Ebright, a molecular biophysicist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Ebright says pathogens as deadly as Ebola are transported by common courier: "Ebola, for example, would be sent by regular mail. That's very frightening." When asked if mail carriers received special training to handle infectious pathogens, he says, "In theory, yes. In practice, it would depend on how attentive the managers and supervisors at that facility were."

The question sticks in the minds of many here: Why Hamilton? Why not a military base or some other isolated, sparsely populated area, where the risks of terrorist attacks and escaped pathogens wouldn't be as great?

A long fight ahead

"It isn't as if we have 50 options and picked RML," says Fauci. The Hamilton lab is home to significant "intellectual capital" he said, and it makes sense to put a lab where the scientists are. This could be an economic boon, he adds, for a small town struggling to move financially out of the 19th century and into the 21st, where traditional logging jobs have largely disappeared and service work makes up the fastest-growing industry.

Biosafety level 2 and 3 labs, built to accommodate disease-causing microbes like plague, botulism and brucellosis, already exist at RML and have for decades, says longtime lab scientist Marshall Bloom. The causes of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease were discovered at RML. In addition, the labs' biomedical research on scrapie formed the basis for understanding mad-cow disease and chronic wasting disease.

Between now and the scheduled groundbreaking in late winter 2003, RML will host a series of public meetings to better inform people about the project. And officials recently announced plans to conduct a full-blown environmental impact study of the project, rather than a less comprehensive environmental analysis, which was in the works.

The Coalition's Wulff calls this one small victory in her group's efforts to get the government's attention, but she's not satisfied. "My goal is to see this not happen," she says. "That's my personal opinion."

Perry is a bit more circumspect. "There's a lot of pros and cons," she says. "We need the research, but where should it be done?"

Carlotta Grandstaff writes from Hamilton, Montana.

You can contact ...

  • Mary Wulff at Coalition for a Safe Lab (406/370-0699);
  • Marshall Bloom, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 903 S.Fourth St., Hamilton, MT 59840 (406/363-9275), e-mail: [email protected]
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