Note: Living Carbon is one of the biolabs in the Bay Area
The following is a Press Release announcing the launch of Biolab Watch, and Biolab Watch’s submission of a letter to Berkeley’s Mayor and City Council.
Press Release: September 19, 2023
Contact: Jeremy Gruber, JD., firstname.lastname@example.org; (415) 483-9410
In response to the enormous biolab boom in Berkeley, concerned citizens and civil society groups formed the information sharing network, Biolab Watch. There is no publicly available list of the many labs already built or now in the pipeline for construction. More conspicuous sites include two massive projects: the 8.67-acre aquatic park site in southwest Berkeley where building is well underway, and the 10+ acre biolab compound intended for northwest Berkeley. Both are near enough to shorelines to cause environmental hazards, and they abut residential neighborhoods, igniting questions about what biosafety precautions can be relied upon. There is widespread concern over the potential dire risks of infectious mishaps and leaks from biolabs that can endanger lab workers, the communities they work in, and beyond.
Today, Biolab Watch submitted a letter to Berkeley’s Mayor and City Council taking them to task over the lack of transparency or community involvement. The letter, signed by 73 local, regional, national, and international signatories is endorsed by 18 public interest groups.
“There has been absolutely no transparency about biohazards or biosafety,” said Jeremy Gruber, a director for Alliance for Humane Biotechnology. “Lab mishaps and leaks are not uncommon. The CDC mandates four levels of biosafety labs with increasing levels of safety protocols for each. What levels will be allowed? What pathogens studied? Who are the tenants for the labs? Will they have public safety committees with members from communities most at risk?”
Lab accidents and life-threatening exposures have caused serious injury, including death, even at biosafety level 2 labs. The patchwork of regulatory guidelines between local, state, and federal levels offers poor oversight and does not bear the force of law. Especially for commercial labs, oversight and compliance is woefully inadequate, relying on self-reported mishaps.
For former Berkeley mayor, Shirley Dean, the lack of transparency is particularly troubling. “When discussion got under way about developing the Aquatic Park area, promoters referred only to ‘research and development.’ They should have decoded for the public exactly what they meant by that.”
Berkeley resident and Friends of the Earth Senior Program Manager, Dana Perls, adds that building biolabs near shorelines amplifies hazards. “This makes littles sense,” she cautioned. “Flooding and rising sea levels near notorious earthquake fault lines make these areas a bad gamble.”
Long-time member of the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council (BNC), Dean Metzger, wants more due diligence on the part of civic leaders. “Residents, especially those in areas where labs are sited, need to know exactly what research these bio-industry neighbors are undertaking, what biosafety protocols they operate under, and how accountable they will be in the event of a lab leak or neighborhood exposure to an infectious microorganism.”
Christopher Kroll, also a BNC member, thinks a moratorium is in order. “State and federal regulations need to be unified and made effective before siting biolabs. This is not something the Berkeley City Council can fix on its own,” Kroll offered.
Washington DC based, International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), works to provide the public with full assessments and analyses of technological impacts. For ICTA policy director Jaydee Hanson, “The lack of citizen awareness and participation is, quite simply, shocking. Three letters went to the Berkeley City Council since 2020. Hopefully, the fourth will resonate.”