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Biosafety lab faces lawsuit; July NIH site visit possible

By Pat Bailey on June 13, 2003 in University

UC Davis is responding to a recent legal challenge to its application for federal funding to build a national biocontainment laboratory on campus and is preparing for a possible site visit from the National Institutes of Health in relation to the lab proposal.

The local group "Stop the UCD BioLab Now" filed a lawsuit June 6 in Alameda Superior Court, charging that UC Davis failed to fulfill the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act in applying to NIH for construction funding for the lab. The lawsuit asks the court to order the university to withdraw its application.

The suit also names the UC Regents, Governor Gray Davis and the California Department of Finance. It charges that the Governor and the finance office illegally committed $25 million to the lab without legislative approval.

In its laboratory proposal, submitted to NIH in February, the campus stated that a complete environmental analysis that fulfills state and federal requirements would be conducted if NIH awards funds for the proposed lab to UC Davis.

"NIH made it very clear that design work on the proposed lab was not to go beyond the conceptual stage because NIH will provide assistance in designing the labs that it funds," said Sid England, UC Davis' director of environmental planning. "The campus has stated in public and in the proposal that it will carry out a thorough environmental assessment when, and if, funding is awarded to UC Davis."

He pointed out that, in its request for proposals, NIH stated "if the project has a significant environmental impact, a full Environ-mental Impact Statement must be prepared and released by the Federal Government before the grant award."

England noted that the timeline for the proposed laboratory includes more than a year devoted to addressing environmental issues related to the lab, which the campus proposes to build on the current location of the Equestrian Center, adjacent to the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and other health-sciences buildings.

"Even on simple projects, significant design features change between conceptual design and the designs that would be evaluated in an environmental document," he said. "Information specific to the design, siting and operation of the biocontainment laboratory will influence the details of the environmental review. The appropriate time to analyze the potential environmental effects of the proposed project is when the design is sufficiently developed to inform the analysis."

"The campus is committed to completing the environmental review consistent with both federal and state law," said Steve Drown, UC Davis' campus counsel. He said that he was surprised not by the legal challenge, but by its timing.

"We wouldn't have been surprised to have the environmental review challenged when it was completed, but it is a bit curious that this lawsuit contests the environmental review process before it has even begun," he said.

Meanwhile, the campus is making plans for a possible site visit by NIH. UC Davis' lab proposal is one of at least six submitted to NIH. These include five proposals from research universities throughout the nation and one from the New York State Department of Health. All of the applicants recently received a letter from NIH, notifying them that the scientific review of the applications is nearing completion and that NIH officials plan to conduct one-day site visits during the first three weeks of July to the institutions whose proposals are highly ranked.

During those site visits, NIH representatives will ask to meet with key faculty members, as well as with administrators and staff who would be involved with managing and operating the proposed laboratory. They will want to discuss financial and management issues, design and engineering of the proposed facility, and community relations.

"If our campus does receive a site visit, we will coordinate meetings with the appropriate people on campus and in the community to provide the information that the NIH representatives need," said Provost Virginia Hinshaw. The provost's office is working with Fred Murphy, the scientific director on the lab proposal and dean emeritus of the School of Veterinary Medicine, to plan for a potential site visit.

The campus office of Government and Community Relations is also working on establishing a Community Liaison Council that will facilitate two-way communication between the campus and the public on issues related to the proposed lab.