The Coming Plague? 

Experts say proposed Livermore biolab won't be that much of a threat; plus Dean Singleton: Lean, local, machine; and adieu to Jerry Brown clichés — hopefully.

An outbreak of hype: The specter of deadly microbes raining down over the Bay Area has local activists up in arms and area hypochondriacs washing their hands one more time. But is the high-level biocontainment facility Lawrence Livermore Lab wants to construct in Tracy truly a threat to millions of residents?

It sure is, at least if you believe Stephan Volker, a lawyer suing the government and the University of California on behalf of Livermore environmental group Tri-Valley Cares. The lawsuit concerns a not-yet-functioning Biosafety Level 3 lab, but that's minor league. BSL3 labs, which are equipped to study infectious diseases including anthrax and plague, are common in urban areas. Stanford University has at least one, and Robert Eaton, director of environmental health and safety for UC San Francisco, estimates his university has seven or so scattered around the city.

Biosafety Level 4 labs such as the one now being proposed are the Alcatraz Islands of biology — nothing escapes. In these maximum-security facilities, scientists can work on the most deadly viruses known — exotic scourges such as Ebola, Marburg, and Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever, in addition to wild poliovirus and a bevy of other demons. There are currently seventeen BSL4s in the world, according to one biosafety expert, and many more under construction, including nine new labs in the United States. Among the potential disaster scenarios opponents have raised are the Next Big One, a catastrophic fire, and, yes, terrorism.

The people who actually build such facilities aren't losing any sleep, however. These labs, they say, are built like tanks — well, far tougher than tanks. There are Level 4 labs, for instance, in areas prone to blizzards and tornadoes (Winnipeg), and powerful hurricanes (the Galveston BSL4 facility survived Rita unscathed). In every case, experts say, the labs are designed to withstand their region's worst-case catastrophe. They note that in the fifty years such facilities have existed, there has never been a breach.

Activist groups voice similar concerns every time such a facility is proposed, and that's understandable, says Lee Thompson, director of biosafety and biocontainment at the University of Texas, who also consults for the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. But Level 4 labs are built to such high specifications, and at such great expense — roughly $6,000 per square foot, he estimates — that the risk of accidental release is virtually nil. "The biggest concern you have is an unreported needle stick," says Thompson, who has overseen construction of five Level 4 facilities, and is working on four more. "The biggest misconception of containment labs is that you're working in a fog of microorganisms — 95 percent of the time you could walk into one of these labs in your street clothes without risk. We work with quantities of microliters. ... We're talking drops of solutions, rather than gallons."

The researchers don't wear street clothes, of course — the list of Level 4 safety precautions is extensive. What's more, they work in pairs, and are carefully trained and screened for both lab skills and civic propriety, says Frederick Murphy, another biosafety expert. All of which makes even an unreported needle stick extremely unlikely.

Murphy, a University of Texas virologist, is former dean of the UC Davis veterinary school, and worked closely with Davis engineers and architects on that campus' unsuccessful 2003 bid for a BSL4 facility. Prior to that, he spent 25 years at the federal Centers for Disease Control in urban Atlanta, where he helped design the CDC's first Level 4 lab. The Davis architects, he recalls, had an impressive level of seismic expertise, and even in Atlanta, far from earthquake country, the labs were very heavily fortified with concrete and rebar.

In Level 4 labs, Murphy says, the pathogens are stored in a space akin to a bank vault, pretty much impervious to physical forces, be they quakes or airplane-wielding terrorists — a scenario the federal judge in the Livermore case actually raised in court last week. "What you've got is a building within a building within a building, and the work is done in the inner box, and that area is built to withstand an airplane crash — you could destroy the building with a bigger plane, but not crack the inner box," Murphy says. "The place where you'd store the infectious agents is not very big and is very, very secure against any threat."

Stanford University biophysicist and bioterror expert Steve Block, who, admittedly, has never built a biocontainment lab, nonetheless opines that any quake large enough to breach a Level 4 facility would likely make any resulting microbe release seem like a walk in the park. "There are hazards posed by any biosafety facility, but I don't think those hazards are made extraordinarily more dangerous by the mere fact that we happen to be in an earthquake zone," he says. "More lives will be placed at risk with an 8.0 or 9.0 earthquake. Collapse of building structures, roads, infrastructure, electrical power grid, you name it, would cause enormous casualties, and the foreseeable casualties from a BSL 4 facility I expect would be essentially close to zero, because I don't think they'll leak."

Meanwhile, the contention that a terrorist would bother to target such a restricted facility as opposed to, say, BART, borders on laughable. Thompson believes the possibility is extremely remote. "They're a low-value target other than killing a few scientists, and the security around them is extremely intense right now," he says. "They'd be better off getting these agents from nature than trying to break into one of these facilities." — Michael Mechanic

Lean, local, Dean: When it came time to announce the now-pending deal in which Denver-based MediaNews Inc. will gobble up the Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, and myriad smaller Bay Area papers, the new boss flew out to calm his troops. They needed calming because MediaNews CEO William Dean Singleton — whose ANG Newspapers subsidiary oversees the Oakland Tribune, Tri-Valley Herald, Fremont's Argus, Hayward's Daily Review, and other area dailies — has a longtime rep as a cost-cutter who dispatches underlings with ruthless efficiency, plays hardball with the unions, and tends to underpay the scribes he keeps around.

Responding to the inevitable questions from Merc and CoCo Times staffers about whether he planned layoffs, salary reductions, and such for his new acquisitions, "Lean Dean" responded as any good politician might.

"He said he expects the management teams at the newspapers to remain intact, and that there would be no layoffs or changes to benefits," Times editor Chris Lopez wrote in his paper's blog shortly after Singleton's visit. "If there are any changes, he said, those will be decided not by him but by the local management of the newspapers."

On June 9, the boss' words took on new meaning. That was the day ANG publisher Fred Mott left the company, to be replaced by none other than Singleton himself. "As MediaNews adds to its California footprint, our focus will center on the task of consolidating these excellent newspapers to maximize both our print and online business," the new, local, CEO said in ANG's statement.

The irony wasn't lost on some of Singleton's minions-to-be. "Oh-h-h-h, I get it! He's making HIMSELF local management! Very, very clever," e-mailed one sarcastic scribe, who used the e-mail prefix worriedreporter@. "So basically the deal hasn't even closed yet and he has already gone back on his word. But not really."

As for Mott's departure, Worried had this to say: "Word around the campfire is that Mott balked over some new, clandestine directive to lower ANG's already inhumane wage scale and Singleton told him to go suck off a sewer pipe."

ANG executive editor Kevin Keane insists Mott wasn't fired, but did say the publisher left as the result of a disagreement. Told of the rumor that it'd involved a proposed lowering of ANG wages, Keane responded with typical passion. "That's horseshit! Quote me! Horseshit! Bullshit! — I don't know where that comes from."

Why, worried reporters, where else? — M.M.

Paper Chase
What the Herd Heard

: Among the many burdens even non-Oaklanders have had to bear since Jerry Brown became mayor, few are so annoying as the pile of desiccated Jerry clichés bandied about by the national press. If you think you can handle it, let's recap the basic storyline: "Hey, everybody! Remember Jerry Brown, that wacky hippie from the '70s who dated Linda Ronstadt, wanted California to have its own satellite, ran for president, and clothed the lepers with Mother Teresa? Get this — he's the mayor of Oakland!" And the latest addendum: "Hey, look, everyone, now he's running for attorney general! And he's tough on crime and loves big developers. Gone are the halcyon days of solar power: Governor Moonbeam is kicking ass!"

For nearly a decade we've had to endure the bad prose of people who think writing consists of stringing together boilerplate stereotypes. The lone holdout in this conspiracy of dullards has been The New York Times, which kept the cartoon caricatures to a minimum. Until two weeks ago, that is, when it ran what could be the most banal bit of Jerrymania yet.

Reporter Jesse McKinley gives fair warning about his story's quality in the lead, when he describes Oakland as "this Rodney Dangerfield-like city across the bay." And that's decent of him; a caveat emptor, in its own way. Then he unloads with the big guns: "Could it be that Mr. Brown — a former Jesuit seminarian who once shared the limelight with Linda Ronstadt, then his girlfriend, tended to the poor with Mother Teresa, and fought the Man with his nonprofit political action committee We the People — is suddenly siding with (gulp) the establishment?"

Wow. There's a certain austere beauty in writing a hackneyed, decade-old story. And no, McKinley didn't forget to throw in "Governor Moonbeam." It's right there in the second paragraph.

Ron Dellums and Ignacio De La Fuente have their flaws, but let us be thankful for one blessing: Whoever replaces Brown won't lure armies of talentless hacks to parachute into town for a day, jot down a bunch of tripe, then flee forthwith back to the East Coast. Rejoice, East Bay readers — Oakland may finally be free. -— Chris Thompson


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