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UTMB offers to amend biolab information bill

By Laura Elder — Galveston County Daily News, May 12, 2009

GALVESTON Acknowledging a bill it supports could forbid the release of any information about deadly pathogens at the Galveston National Laboratory, University of Texas Medical Branch officials asked lawmakers Monday to strike the word "confidential" from the proposed legislation.

But open government advocates argue the concession does little to improve Senate Bill 2556, which they say would allow the medical branch and other state laboratories to withhold any information about so-called select agents, including about accidental infections.

The move to tweak the bill's language came as island neighborhood groups and some elected city officials were gearing up to oppose it.

By removing the word "confidential," the medical branch is working to show it continues to be transparent in its operations at the laboratory, officials said.

"The message is that we are ensuring our ability to maintain transparency we worked so hard to establish," said Dr. James LeDuc, deputy director of the national laboratory, where researchers plan to develop drugs and vaccines to battle infectious disease, including deadly germs.

Opponents of the proposed legislation, including the Texas Press Association, the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, aren't opposed to measures that protect security-sensitive information, they said. Texas laws already protect information that would be dangerous in the wrong hands, they said.

What they're fighting is language in the bill that states "Information that pertains to a biological agent or toxin as defined in federal law is confidential and exempted from" disclosure requirements.

Medical branch officials openly discuss what they're researching at the laboratory, fulfilling a pledge they made to residents when they sought community support for the Galveston National Laboratory.

But the bill's broad language could prohibit the medical branch from providing the public with information about the germs researchers study or who was studying them.

Striking the word "confidential" could protect the medical branch, which owns and operates the national laboratory, should it choose to provide information to the public, opponents said.

But the proposed legislation would leave it up to the medical branch's discretion to make information public, critics said.

"The change in language does not appear to change the effect of the bill," said Joe Larsen, an attorney and board member of the Freedom Information Foundation of Texas.

"The only thing the change arguably accomplishes is that UTMB will not be in breach of the law if they voluntarily release information pertaining to select agents."

Medical branch officials and the bill's author, state Sen. Joan Huffman, argue the proposed legislation is meant to protect the identity of people and the location of the agents, not to shield information.

But some island residents said they're worried about the bill and its implications.

"If you lose your watchdog position, then the biolab folks will be less responsible for their commitment to the island," said Ralph McMorris, an island resident who owns cocktail mix maker Lt. Blender's, a business on the East End near the medical branch campus.

McMorris, also vice president and president elect of Galveston Alliance of Island Neighborhoods, said he was never comfortable with building such a laboratory on the island. But medical branch officials made assurances, he said.

The alliance, which includes about 30 island neighborhoods as members, has not taken a formal position on the bill.

But McMorris sent e-mails to members Monday encouraging them to contact their representatives about the bill.

Promises by medical branch officials they would continue to be open, even if the bill doesn't require them to do so, isn't good enough, McMorris said.

"Six months or a year from now, they're going to forget those promises and platitudes," McMorris said. "It's going to be whatever the law is. That's the way it's going to be run."

Meanwhile, District 3 Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton put an item on Thursday's city council agenda, seeking a resolution opposing the bill.

District 1 Councilman Tarris Woods provided the second to put the resolution on the agenda.

Removing the word "confidential" from the bill doesn't allay her concerns, Beeton, also an attorney, said.

"The legal effect of the bill is the same," Beeton said. "They'll still be excepted from the obligation they release information."

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