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Boston University biolab wins state approval of its environmental review

Boston University’s bid to study some of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases in a South End laboratory has cleared another regulatory hurdle.

The state secretary for environmental affairs issued a certificate Friday indicating that an environmental impact report submitted by BU for the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory is complete enough to comply with state law.

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The environmental review has been a point of contention for years, with opponents arguing that not enough had been done to examine the potential impact of bringing dangerous pathogens to the densely populated city neighborhood, particularly if the lab were attacked.

The state Supreme Judicial Court agreed in 2007 that not enough had been done to examine such risks, prompting a lengthy federal review that was completed in January when the National Institutes of Health issued a decision saying the facility “poses minimal risk to the community.”

State Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard K. Sullivan Jr. found that the review “adequately and properly complies” with state environmental law.

The project, which is funded by NIH, still needs permits for traffic and sewer use and a review by the Boston Public Health Commission. But Sullivan’s certification “is really the last significant state step that we have to go through,” said Boston University spokesman Steve Burgay.

The project is still subject to lawsuits in state and federal courts. Christine M. Griffin, an attorney representing residents of the neighborhood, said opponents would reinitiate their legal challenge to the environmental review.

Because the lab was located in a neighborhood designated as one where residents have been disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, state law requires closer scrutiny of the risks. The review approved on Friday still falls short, said Jennifer Rushlow, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.

The 192,000-square-foot lab was designed to study the most lethal “level 4” infectious agents such as ebola.

With the state approval in hand, BU said it now would begin performing research in the lab on less dangerous “level 3” germs. Burgay said the lab will immediately seek permission from the city of Boston to move tuberculosis research, now being conducted in a facility across the street, to the $200 million lab, which has been mostly vacant since its construction was completed about four years ago.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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