HELENA — Federal health officials on Friday released a detailed look at a proposed biological laboratory design for Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton.
The study also announced that building the controversial lab to house some of the most deadly pathogens known was the preference of the National Institutes of Health, which ultimately oversees the Hamilton facility.
The document released Friday was a draft study examining the environmental implications of the facility, which would be the only the fifth such lab in the United States. The study looked at only two alternatives: building a new, $66.5 million, 105,000 square foot building to house the specialized laboratory, along with rooms for animals used in experiments and other labs or doing nothing at all and leaving the lab as it is.
The most controversial aspect of the expansion is the proposed Biosafety Level 4 (BL-4) laboratory. Such labs are specifically built to handle organisms that cause deadly diseases for which there is no cure, especially those spread through the air, like the Ebola virus.
The possibility of a new BL-4 lab sparked controversy in Hamilton and throughout the nation. The Hamilton BL-4 is among several other proposed new labs which, if completed, would double the U.S. capacity to work on such deadly organisms. It is also associated with a new push toward protecting the United States from biological attack by investigating pathogens that could be used as biological weapons. Some in the scientific community have questioned how thin the line is between defensive biological research and offensive work. They have also questioned the security of such labs and pushed for more stringent oversight of the scientists working there.
To that effect, much of the document released Friday looked at how the BL-4 would protect both the workers inside it and the outside community.
The BL-4, which would take up a small fraction of the new building, would be embedded deep within it, with buffer corridors on all sides. Workers inside the lab would have to wear "moon suits" —one-piece garments designed to protect them from the pathogens handled in the room.
All the waste generated in lab would be considered contaminated. Liquid waste would be treated in special cookers designed to destroy biological waste. The document also envisions a special "tissue digester" to destroy infectious wastes from the animals worked with in the lab.
The lab would be under tight security, the document said, with only authorized people allowed to enter. Doors to the lab area would be lockable with either the lab manager or another officer controlling access.
Lab director Marshall Bloom described the physical security of the lab — designed to keep undesirable pathogens in and undesirable people out — as "an onion skin," with many layers of doors and rooms.
The building is envisioned as much more than a BL-4 lab, the document said, and would include several other, less protective research labs and conference rooms.
For the next 60 days, federal officials will be gathering public comments on the draft with a final study — and decision on building the lab — expected later this year.
If all goes as planned, Bloom said, the lab could break ground by the end of the year.