By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff
A federal agency's safety review of a controversial laboratory being built by Boston University was "not sound and credible" and failed to sufficiently address community concerns, according to a blistering report released today by an independent panel of scientists.
The study by the prestigious National Research Council criticizes a federal government analysis that concluded that the BU lab poses no health threat to the South End neighborhood where it is being built. The federal examination failed to adequately consider the dangers of working with the world's deadliest germs, including Ebola and plague, in the middle of a congested urban neighborhood, the study concluded. The new report did not examine the potential safety of the lab, only the quality of the federal government's safety analysis.
Despite the pointed rebuke, the review being presented at this hour in Washington does not have immediate consequences on construction of the nearly $200 million project, which is more than half finished. Still, the analysis could influence ongoing government reviews of the project and appears guaranteed to embolden lab opponents who have fought for more than four years to block the Albany Street lab.
The council's report was commissioned by the state after a judge ordered a further review of the lab project. The ruling by Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants mandated that a more extensive environmental analysis of the lab be conducted but did not require the case to come back before him.
The 11 scientists who conducted the review were especially harsh in their assessment of how the National Institutes of Health, which conducted the initial review, communicated with the community as it sought public input about the project's safety impact.
"It is important to develop presentations and documents that are transparent, complete, and clearly address the concerns of interested and affected parties," the National Research Council wrote. The process used by the NIH, though, "is not transparent, is not complete, and may not address the fundamental concerns of the community, particularly regarding environmental justice.
The council scientists said the NIH report was especially weak in its analysis of worst-case scenarios for the release of dangerous organisms from the lab.
"In light of this inadequacy," the council report concludes, "statements in the [NIH study] that the risks are 'negligible' and 'vastly overstated' can appear unfounded and dismissive of public concerns."
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