HELENA - Federal health officials on Friday released a detailed look at a proposed biological lab designed to house the most deadly pathogens known slated for Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton.
The study also announced that building the controversial lab - one of only a handful in the nation - 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 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, or BL-4, laboratory. Such labs are specifically to handle organisms that cause deadly diseases for which there is no cure, especially diseases spread through the air, like the mysterious Ebola virus.
The possibility of a new BL-4 sparked controversy both in Hamilton, where residents worried about their own safety, 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 the facility, with buffer corridors on all sides. All air entering and leaving the lab would be sifted through special filters designed to remove microbes. Air leaving the lab would be filtered twice before released outside.
Workers inside the lab would have to wear a so-called "moon suit" - a one-piece garment designed to protect them from the pathogens handled in the room. They would breathe air piped into the suit, not air in the room that could be contaminated. The suits themselves would also be under positive pressure so air filling the suit would push out any accidental contamination through inadvertent rips or tears.
The lab room itself would be gas tight to keep the microbes inside from leaking out.
All the waste generated in the 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.
Access to the lab room itself would be through a series of doors and areas under negative pressure to keep any accidental contamination from leaving the lab work area. Each door would be locked and accessible only by authorized personnel. For some areas, eye retina scans would be used.
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 BL-4 area would not be just one large lab, but several small labs, Bloom said, including spaces to conduct experiments on animals.
All new employees would have to have a background check before being allowed into the lab.
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.
The analysis also considered - but rejected - other ideas for the BL-4 lab, like building it far away from people or building it on a military base for various reasons.
Mary Wulff, a Hamilton author, has been one of the lab's most vocal critics. Wulff said Friday she had just seen the draft document and needed more time to study it before she would comment.
The document explicitly said that the laboratory will do no research geared toward biological weapons used in an offensive capacity, and Bloom said bioterrororism research would be only a part of the research the lab would conduct.