Working-class people in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood continue to fight against the building of a biolab in the heart of their community.
The facility, categorized as a BSL-4 (BioSafety Level 4) lab, will house the most dangerous biological agents that exist. Now nearing its completion at Boston University’s Medical Center, the so-called biodefense lab is better known as the “bioterror” lab to its working-class neighbors.
For the past four years, residents of Roxbury and surrounding areas have demanded that construction on the lab end immediately, citing serious safety concerns and issues of environmental racism and injustice. There are currently only three operational BSL-4 facilities in the United States. This would be the first to be operating in a densely populated, urban neighborhood.
Hundreds of scientists and doctors and dozens of community organizations support the community in its demands. The surrounding cities of Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Arlington and Newton have all passed city council regulations against the lab’s construction. Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry are backing the project.
But while the lab’s political and corporate supporters consistently cite national defense and economic development as reasons for its construction, local residents are well-aware of who will really benefit. Funded through a nearly $150 million dollar federal grant, construction of such a facility creates the potential for institutions like Boston University to receive highly lucrative government contracts.
The University has claimed the lab will be used to find cures for diseases like AIDS/HIV and tuberculosis, yet has absolutely no control over what type of research is conducted.
Federal funding for the lab was procured by BU through the Bush administration’s Project Bioshield, a $6 billion dollar program through the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Initiated in February of 2003 as part of the “war on terror,” Project Bioshield seeks to further study the agents used in biological and chemical warfare. Research must be guided by NIAID’s Biodefense Research Agenda as a requirement of funding. The University confirmed this in its grant application: “should we receive funding … the facility would be devoted exclusively to … NIAID-defined research programs for 20 years.”
Research institutions like Boston University seek to cash in on the “war on terror” while improving their public image. In reality, the biolab is likely be used to develop biological and chemical weapons. Use of these weapons by the U.S. military on the people of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba and elsewhere around the world is well documented.
On Sept. 20, over 200 people packed Boston’s Faneuil Hall for a public hearing to address community safety concerns. Prior assessments and environmental impact reports drafted by BU and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have consistently been grossly inadequate and overtly biased.
In 2006, a Massachusetts judge ruled that the state’s approval of the project based upon these reports to be “arbitrary and capricious.” A newly released report by the NIH has been met with similar condemnation. It was the main subject of discussion at the hearing. The vast majority who attended spoke against the biolab’s construction.
The facility also represents a clear case of environmental racism.
Since the project’s conception, community concerns have been locked out of the closed door discussions between BU and government officials. The Community Liaison Committee created by the city and BU exists only on paper, as it never included any voices of opposition. Organizations like Safety Net in Roxbury, which has been leading the fight against the lab, was never notified about the CLC’s creation or about its meetings.
Roxbury, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston, is under attack by private universities, real-estate moguls and city developers. Claims of economic development and community benefits are just hot air.
Although the bioterror lab has financial and political backing, community resistance is strong and growing. Mounting a legal battle has resulted in the revocation of key construction permits.
The struggle is not over. The working-class people of Roxbury will continue fighting until their voices are heard and the institutions of racism are razed for good.