Biolab bill leaves much in the dark
By LISA FALKENBERG — Houston Chronicle, May 14, 2009
The deal was simple: Galveston residents wouldn't fight a maximum-containment laboratory dealing in deadly agents like anthrax and Ebola on their island if the folks running the place vowed to provide not only solid security but also transparency.
For the most part, officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch kept their word. Until now.
A bill that sailed quietly through the state Senate appears to make private any information that "pertains to a biological agent or toxin identified or listed as a select agent under federal law."
The bill, by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, lists certain items exempt from disclosure — such as the location of a certain agent and the names of lab workers — but doesn't explicitly state that the bill applies only to those items.
The threat of Galveston National Laboratory and a smaller maximum-containment lab operating in secrecy, with citizens unable to learn about accidents, exposure risks or the kinds of harmful germs being studied, has stirred fear and anger among some local officials and neighborhood activists.
Although the legislation would apply to labs at Texas A&M University and any other facility that deals with the most harmful biological agents, opponents say UTMB, which apparently initiated the legislation, has reneged on its deal.
"The community was set up to be somewhat of a watchdog over what was going on, over there," says Ralph McMorris, a business owner and president-elect of the Galveston Alliance of Island Neighborhoods. "If this law passes, we'll really be in the dark."
McMorris said there have been minor incidents since the labs opened, but the community was always made aware. He's afraid a lack of oversight will lead to lax accountability.
Galveston City Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton put an item on today's council meeting agenda that seeks a resolution opposing the "overly broad" legislation.
Others in opposition include the Texas Press Association, the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
None of these groups wants to stand in the way of protecting information for security reasons, but they maintain state and federal laws already do that.
"I mean, you don't want people to know which refrigerator they're keeping this stuff in," said attorney Joe Larsen, a FOI Foundation board member.
Larsen said Huffman appears to be responsive to the "public outcry" on the bill, but he said a recent change, which took out the word "confidential," means little when the word "excepted" still exempts all information from disclosure.
Huffman told me Wednesday that Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, had agreed to sponsor the bill in the House, and that she would work with him on any "tweaks" needed.
A matter of trust
A UTMB spokeswoman referred me to James LeDuc, deputy director of the Galveston National Laboratory. LeDuc believes the bill is necessary to protect sensitive information, like names of lab workers or substances being transferred, but also to protect the medical branch from an individual he said has been filing a harassing volume of requests, including some for sensitive information.
"I'm absolutely convinced that all of this is in reaction to this single jerk that is abusing the intent of the law," LeDuc said.
The attorney general has ruled against UTMB in litigation stemming from those requests, leading UTMB to sue the attorney general to keep information secret.
LeDuc seems to understand the need to balance security and transparency, and he is proud of UTMB's record of keeping the public informed through community boards and its Web site.
"You simply can't do this work if the community doesn't trust you," he said. "And so it's very important for us to maintain that trust."
But public agencies release only the information they have to. And they take their sweet time doing it.
If there is any need for a bill protecting sensitive information at UTMB's biolab, which is debatable, it should be a targeted antidote, not a generic vaccine with tons of side effects.