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Ravalli County voices concern over Rocky Mountain Laboratories expansion plan

While public concerns regarding the expansion of Rocky Mountain
Laboratories have been aired in recent weeks, county officials, too,
announced this week that they hold some concerns of their own,
according to Ravalli County Disaster and Emergency Services
Coordinator Greg Chilcott.

By JAMIE OGDEN Ravalli Republic Staff Reporter

Asked to contribute to RML’s burgeoning environmental
assessment on the addition of a biosafety level 4 laboratory to the
Hamilton campus, Chilcott told the Board of Health Monday that
most of those concerns center on preparing and planning for a
potential emergency response at the labs, where scientists will
conduct research on the most dangerous of pathogens.

From building access to radio frequencies, Chilcott said a number
of factors must be considered and included in the environmental
assessment in order for the county’s public safety departments to
become prepared for a potential accident at the labs.

Though federal officials have made assurances that the
76,000-square foot laboratory will be highly secured and safe,
Chilcott said questions about containment, decontamination, site
security, population protection procedures, jurisdiction and the
protocol for handling a potential exposure should be addressed
upfront.

Moreover, Chilcott said he and Sheriff Perry Johnson want to know
who is going to cover the expense of such a response should it
occur, as well as the cost of preparing and outfitting local crews as
special training and equipment may be necessary.

Health Board member and retired RML scientist John Swanson
said he expects that lab officials are only just beginning to address
the types of questions posed by Chilcott and Johnson, though he
assumes the issues are "on their agenda."

"Like it or not … this is a new ball game for them, too," Swanson
said.

Nevertheless, lab officials need to be in communication and
conversation with county government, he said.

"They need to communicate with us," said Swanson, who suggested
that the Health Board initiate meetings with RML representatives to
address issues.

The recommendation met the approval of the board, and Chairman
Roger DeHaan said the opportunity may create a more open
atmosphere regarding lab expansion, one centered on involvement,
where there is currently a lot of anxiety.

"Even though you do everything you can in the lab, you still have to
be prepared for the worst-case scenario," said DeHaan.

But, Chilcott said, RML doesn’t have a great track record when it
comes to emergency preparedness, at least not on the county end.
The facility is currently required to have an emergency plan on file
with the county, he said – a federal and county requirement that has
never been met by Rocky Mountain Labs, though other facilities
housing biohazards and other hazards, like Corixa, are in
compliance.

Still, Health Board members said they are optimistic that the public
health and safety will be addressed and planned for in the draft
environmental assessment.

The document will be available for public review and comment when
completed. Construction on the new lab is slated to begin next
spring, with completion targeted in 2005. The lab will be one of only
a handful of its kind in the nation, with others located in Atlanta, Ga.,
Houston, Texas, and Bethesda, Md.

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