Rural Montana prepares for major bio defense lab
By Adam Tanner
HAMILTON, Montana (Reuters) – Montana’s Bitterroot Valley,
surrounded by mountains, has long offered a respite from the
modern world, an area of small-town values with rivers beloved
by fishermen and a thriving log cabin business.
The bucolic setting between two mountain ranges in western
Montana will soon host one of the nation’s few biowarfare
defense labs, a controversial $66.5 million building where
scientists will research dangerous pathogens in an effort to
stem deadly attacks.
“It’s an unfortunate mission, but unfortunately it’s a
necessity, especially after 9/11,” said Joe Petrusaitis, mayor
of Hamilton, pop. 4,400. “The community mostly supported it,
but we did have detractors.”
Scientists came to the Bitterroot Valley early in the 20th
century to study the outbreak of an often fatal disease which
came to be called Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
In 1928, some in the local community sued to prevent the
building of what became the Rocky Mountain Laboratories. To
calm local fears, the lab agreed to build a long-since
demolished and never-used moat around its buildings to bar
disease-carrying ticks from spreading.
In later years it worked on numerous infectious diseases
including Lyme disease and prion diseases, a type of disease
that includes so-called mad cow disease; today it is part of
the network of U.S. infectious disease labs with 250 workers.
With white-coated scientists behind closed doors, the Rocky
Mountain Lab created an mysterious aura, perhaps heightened by
a suspicion of government strong in much of the U.S. West.
“Until around 2000, the lab did not do as good a job at
promoting its research program as it does now,” said Marshall
Bloom, who became the lab director in 2002. “In the local
community, there was a lot of concern.”
That concern intensified with the announcement of
biodefense plans that would involve staff wearing space-age
contamination suits in airtight labs. The new facility should
be ready next year with biodefense work scheduled for 2007.
“It is a logical extension of what had gone on here
virtually 100 years,” Bloom said.
RENOUNCING BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS
The United States unilaterally renounced biological weapons
in 1969, a commitment fixed by treaty in 1972.
The Clinton administration boosted germ warfare defenses in
the late 1990s. Since 2001, Washington has spent billions more
on fighting germs such as anthrax and plague and has announced
plans to add to the nation’s four existing Biosafety Level-4
The Rocky Mountain Labs would become the only such facility
in the American West, an expansion that prompted a lawsuit
seeking to block the construction.
“Folks were concerned about the lab being some sort of
target of bioterrorism,” said Alexandra Gorman, science
director at Women’s Voices for the Earth. “People were
concerned about agents of bioterrorism that they were working
on in the lab getting out into the community.”
Mary Wulff of the Coalition for a Safe Lab said the lab
once failed to account for a bag of radioactive waste and had
dumped chemicals into a nearby landfill in the 1980s. “The BL-4
(Biosafety Level-4) building boom was a knee-jerk reaction by
our government after 9/11,” she said.
Lab director Bloom declined to say whether he thought
Washington was overreacting to a remote danger of bioterrorism,
but said anthrax and viruses that occurred in nature should be
studied. “If you look at the list of all the causes of emerging
and re-emerging disease … the intentional introduction of
infectious disease is pretty low down on the list,” he said.
Some experts also caution that biodefense skates close to
banned offensive bioweapons research. “We have to understand
what the virus’ tricks are …to treat or defend against it,”
A year after the lawsuit, the lab settled by agreeing to a
series of safety enhancements. State politicians are also on
board and say the lab expansion will help the local economy.
“There’s been some folks in the local community that are
not happy having a facility there. I think that that is maybe
an overreaction,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said in an interview.
“It’s a high-tech employer and we need more of those in
Montana, not less.”
Hamilton Mayor Petrusaitis said he had more pressing
Lab officials say five workers died from infections they
contracted from 1910-1925. The last disease-related death
stemming from the lab occurred in World War Two, and germs from
the lab have never affected area outsiders, lab officials say.
“You could die from the flu much more easily,” Petrusaitis
said. “I am more worried about the rogue alcoholic driving