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Eiland proposed revised biolab bill

By Laura Elder — Galveston County Daily News, May 23, 2009

State Rep. Craig Eiland on Friday introduced a much-revised version of a controversial bill that would restrict the public's right to information about deadly germs at the Galveston National Laboratory.

Although Senate Bill 2556 no longer contains broad language that would have kept secret all activity at a laboratory where researchers study such lethal pathogens as anthrax, open government advocates still question why the University of Texas Medical Branch pushed the bill at all.

State and federal laws already protect security-sensitive information at such facilities, opponents of the proposed legislations argue. Medical branch officials last week could not cite how those existing laws have failed the facility.

Officials with the medical branch, which owns and operates the laboratory, have offered various reasons for wanting the legislation, including to protect low-level employees who might be targeted by anti-research activists or terrorists and collaborations with out-of-state facilities that don't like being subject to Texas open government laws.

Medical branch officials have insisted they are committed to transparency and open government and never intended to push a bill that would conceal all information about deadly germs or accidents at the lab.

Initially, the bill, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, a first-term Houston Republican representing part of Galveston County, contained such sweeping language it would have made it illegal for medical branch officials to inform residents of pathogens at the lab, even if officials wanted to make the information public.

Medical branch officials, who promised transparency and openness about so-called select agents at the lab available when they were working to win community support for construction of the facility, agreed to tweak the language. But early concessions on language would have allowed the medical branch to make information about select agents public, but at its discretion. That wasn't good enough, open record advocates argued.

Galveston's city council last week overwhelmingly approved a formal resolution against the bill's earlier forms and urged amendment.

Last week, some members of the national lab's 50-member Community Advisory Board wanted even narrower language.

The latest rendition of the bill would exempt from public view information about:
the specific location of a select agent in a laboratory; and
personal identifying information of an individual whose name appears in documentation relating to the chain of custody to select agents, including a material transfer agreements, used to document the transfer of select agents and other samples to institutions that have permission to use the research material.

Although the names of principal investigators handling pathogens are in the public domain, medical branch officials said they are concerned about the privacy of other classifications of their own employees and the privacy of researchers at out-of-state institutions with which they collaborate.

Federal law, which the bill is supposed to mirror, protects the names of employees, officials said.

Federal funds helped to pay for the national lab. But because it's owned by the medical branch, the facility falls under Texas open government rules.

In April, the Texas attorney general denied the medical branch's request to keep private names of researchers and others contained on material transfer documents, costing the medical branch its collaboration with the University of Pittsburg, officials said.

But the bill Eiland introduced Friday does not allow the medical branch to block disclosure of a faculty member or employee whose name will appear in published research, nor does it allow the medical branch to withhold information about what select agents are present at the national lab.

But the bill's opponents are unhappy that the latest version does limit disclosure of information about researchers from other states working at the island's national lab or other Texas facilities, they said.

"The bill continues to improve with each iteration but remains flawed," said Joe Larsen, an attorney and board member of the Freedom Information Foundation of Texas.

"I believe this effort to import the open records laws of other states into coverage of Texas is a poor idea from several perspectives."

Importing other states' open records laws into Texas law sets a bad precedent, Larsen said.

Larsen and other open government advocates continue to assert the bill is not needed.

"This bill remains unnecessary and is therefore suspicious on that ground alone," Larsen said.

The bill, which cleared the Senate earlier this month, awaits a vote by the House.

"We still oppose the bill. If it becomes law, it'll be a sad day," Heber Taylor, editor of The Daily News, said. "At the same time, we're grateful to Craig Eiland for giving people in Galveston County a chance to add some safeguards into the bill to protect their right to get information."

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