Researching Deadly Pathogens in Hamilton, Montana
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RAY SUAREZ: Now bioterrorism in Montana. Betty Ann Bowser reports from Hamilton, a town in western Montana.
CHUCK STRANAHAN: Flick. Follow it down. Follow it down. Concentrate on your fly.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chuck Stranahan has taught fishing in the bucolic Bitterroot Valley of Montana for nearly 20 years. He moved there in the 1980s because he loved the outdoors.
CHUCK STRANAHAN: Take a look around. You don’t find this everywhere: Just a few minutes’ drive from where you’re working, and the easy pace of life and the beauty of the natural resources, I think, are what drew me here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Connie Johnson moved to the valley to enjoy hiking, biking, and the quiet lifestyle.
CONNIE JOHNSON: We wanted to raise our children here in this community. This is a quiet place. It’s, you know… we really enjoy our neighbors.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So while they both moved to Montana for the same reasons, Johnson and Stranahan now find themselves on opposite sides of a debate that has divided the 3,700 people who live in this small town of Hamilton. It’s all over what the federal government wants to do to this building, Rocky Mountain Laboratories. The National Institutes of Health, which own the lab, want to build an addition so government scientists can study some of the most deadly substances known to man, pathogens like anthrax and Ebola, things terrorists could weaponize and use to kill millions of people. The government wants to build the new lab in Hamilton because it already owns the necessary land there, and says to buy property elsewhere would be too expensive. And the government wants to do it soon, because of the threat posed by terrorists. Dr. Marshall Bloom is associate director of Rocky Mountain Labs.
DR. MARSHALL BLOOM, Rocky Mountain Laboratories: We have to know about these things. It’s important to know about them for their own sake, and then it’s also important for us to know about them so that we can find out what they aren’t. If we have an outbreak of infectious diseases in the United States, we not only need to know what it is, we need to be able to rule out things like anthrax, monkey pox, smallpox, and things like that. The only way to do it is by doing basic research on these infections.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new lab, called a biosafety level four lab, would have the highest security of any type of federal research facility. Only at that level can scientists study deadly germs and viruses that can produce 50 percent to 90 percent death rates. The pathogens to be studied are so lethal that the labs will need to be sealed and pressurized to prevent pathogens from escaping, and workers will have to wear environmental spacesuits as they do in these other level four labs. The facility will be just six blocks from Connie Johnson’s home, in a residential neighborhood near a middle school, so she’s concerned about the safety of her two young sons.
CONNIE JOHNSON: You know, I just… I really think that to put this facility in residential Hamilton is completely inappropriate. I think there’s… this is a big country. There’s lots of places that are more secure– military bases, bigger places with more equipped medical facilities if something should happen. It’s… it’s in my backyard.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Stranahan’s fishing shop is also just blocks from where the new lab would be constructed, but he thinks the risk is worth it.
CHUCK STRANAHAN: I do feel that this is a time when, post-9/11, we have to recognize that America has changed. Our levels of security, previously enjoyed, are not the same as they were. I treat this very much the same as I would a high-security penal institution coming in. Everybody agrees we need more and better jails, let’s say, but “not in my town.” Sometimes the hometown needs to step up.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mary Wulff was worried that most of the people of Hamilton would step up and accept the lab without question.
MARY WULFF, Coalition for a Safe Lab: It’s a small community. It’s a patriotic community. The people here pretty much go along with what the government says, and the people here probably wouldn’t stand up against it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So she organized opposition groups and pushed the government to hold more and more public meetings, like this one, to explain the project. Despite the dialogue, Wulff and the others who oppose the lab still have one big, unresolved fear: What if a deadly pathogen got out into the community?
MATTHEW LEMAX: And now little bitty Hamilton, little picturesque Hamilton, the Bitterroot Valley, is facing a nightmare they have never seen before. How do you contain a nightmare? Ships do sink, and biosafety hazard level four containment areas do get breached. It happens. And that’s just… and that’s just too much. For this little community, it’s too much.
SPOKESMAN: So we can actually see the organism along the membrane there?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Tom Kindt, who directs NIH’s internal infectious disease labs, says the federal government operates three other top security research labs around the country, and not one of them has ever contaminated a community.
DR. TOM KINDT, National Institutes of Health: I know of no example where this has happened. Now, one has to be totally honest and say in some rare cases, there have been lab workers who were infected. But we always were able to control that, because they knew what they were working on, they knew if there was the procedures that have to be used for working with these, and one could take measures immediately to prevent any further infection. No family member, no community member that I know of has ever been infected from a biocontainment lab.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: He also says it’s riskier not to build the
DR. TOM KINDT: What we’re doing will remove the terror from the agents of bioterrorism. What we’re doing will make people very secure. We must have safe vaccines. We must have excellent drugs, and we must have the ability to diagnose any type of illness so that if an agent is introduced, we know it immediately.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Veterinarian Dr. Linda Perry used to work at the lab when she was a research scientist. She thinks the possibility of an accident is very real, and worries how a small town with limited public facilities could handle an incident.
DR. LINDA PERRY, Veterinarian: We have a volunteer fire department. We have a very small police department. We have very few trained biohazard people. (Laughs) Our local hospital has been designated as the official site if there was an accident, and our local hospital doesn’t even have an isolation room. It would require additional training by medical personnel to be able to prepare to handle an outbreak if it did occur. Where is the money for all this extra work going to come from? We don’t have a big piggy bank here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Residents are also concerned that the facility could be the target of a terrorist attack. Government officials say no germs or viruses would escape alive if the lab was blown up. That doesn’t comfort Connie Johnson.
CONNIE JOHNSON: You know, we, for a long time, thought, wow, we’ll stay here for a long time and build up our garden and whatever, and we really like where we live right now. But now we’re seriously considering moving if they put that there. And then, you know, are people going to want to buy our house… ( laughs ) …with the… with them studying Ebola six blocks away? I don’t know.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although not required to do so, NIH did an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, hoping to soothe the fears of Hamilton residents like Johnson. But the EIS did not address the risk of a deadly substance getting out into the community of Hamilton, saying that risk “cannot be effectively quantified.” Jim Miller is an environmentalist who says the draft EIS doesn’t justify construction of the new lab.
JIM MILLER, Friends of the Bitterroot: It’s just grossly inadequate. It doesn’t analyze the risks or impacts sufficiently, and it never considers the possibility that a biolevel four pathogen breach could occur and how our community would deal with that. We don’t necessarily think that these things will happen, but there is a small chance that they would happen, and we thought that they should have been addressed, and since they weren’t, it… we’re very concerned. It sort of throws up a red flag that something’s being forced onto the community here without a fair process.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Recently, NIH officials held a hearing at Hamilton city hall where residents could make comments on the EIS. The tone and content was overwhelmingly against construction of the lab.
JOAN PERRY: I can tell you one thing: People back in Washington, D.C., Bethesda, Maryland, do not give a damn about people in Hamilton, Montana. (Applause) And there are only a few of us here, but they don’t care about us. And I tell you, you’re naive if you believe that they care about you. They don’t.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hamilton’s mayor and the city council want the new lab built.
MAYOR JOE PETRUSAITIS, City of Hamilton: The draft EIS study done for the level-four lab proposed to be built here supports the lab’s future contribution to this mission. All concerns and questions have been answered. As one political barometer of Hamilton, I, as mayor, can faithfully embrace the EIS draft statement.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only has the mayor embraced it, federal and state officials have expressed their support for the lab, too. Meanwhile, residents have until July 21 to register public comments, and NIH has not ruled out the possibility of another environmental impact statement.