A federal court has ruled that Boston University can proceed with its decade-long push to study some of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases in a South End laboratory, a decision that leaves the university needing only permission from local health officials before the controversial research can begin.
“While the community has understandable concerns about the wisdom of locating the facility in a highly populated urban area,” US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris wrote in a decision issued late Monday, the final federal assessment of risks posed to the public from accidents or “malevolent acts is extremely low or beyond reasonably foreseeable.”
The decision clears the way for final review by the Boston Public Health Commission.
Boston University spokesman Steve Burgay said the court’s decision “affirms our view that this type of research can be done safely in Boston.”
The decision noted that two groups of independent scientists reviewed studies that analyzed potential public health risks posed by the facility, known as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. That approach, Burgay said, ensured that the science used in those studies was “rock solid.”
Neighborhood residents and environmentalists have long challenged the project, saying officials have not thoroughly considered health risks in such a densely populated area. Saris’s decision recognized that concern.
“Perhaps it would have been wiser to construct the laboratory in a less densely populated area, where public fear and opposition would not be so intense,” Saris wrote. “However, it is not the court’s job to determine where the biolab should be built.”
Jennifer Rushlow — a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that joined the federal lawsuit — said residents of the area surrounding the BU lab already suffer “significantly from disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards,” and the lab could worsen that.
“This community deserves the law’s protection, and this decision denied them that,” she said. The foundation is reviewing the decision and is evaluating whether it will appeal, Rushlow said.
Several of the neighborhood residents still have a lawsuit pending in Superior Court.
A December hearing is scheduled. The state court has not issued any orders that would keep BU from proceeding with research on the most deadly type of germs in a BSL-4 lab, but BU said it does not intend to move forward until the state suit is resolved.
The 192,000-square-foot BU building where the research would be conducted has sat largely vacant since construction was completed roughly five years ago, as federal reviews and the legal challenges dragged on. But BU opened a small portion of the building, a BSL-2 lab, last year for work on less dangerous germs.