SAN FRANCISCO – A local community organization presented its case against the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in federal court Wednesday morning, alleging that the lab handled potentially lethal chemicals without proper environmental review.
The organization, Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, challenged the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds the lab, on its methods of dealing with potential terrorist or accidental situations if lethal pathogens such as anthrax were released from the lab facility. The case was presented before a panel of judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who promised an expedient decision due to the case’s importance.
The lab, which is one of three department labs that the University of California is involved with managing, researches science and technology to solve national security issues.
A panel of three circuit judges listened to and inquired about the oral arguments of both attorneys representing the organization and the department. The community organization has been litigating to stop operations of the Biosafety Level-3 bio-warfare agent research facility — a facility within the lab — since 2003.
The organization contended that the lab did not conduct a deep analysis of how to respond to the consequences of a bio-hazardous chemical being stolen and released from an employee or a terrorist because the lab decided that the probability of those events occurring is too low.
“To analyze something or to not give significance to the situation occurring, you need to first determine what those impacts are,” said Scott Yundt, staff attorney for the organization.
Judge Milan Smith Jr. responded that even the lab’s assessment that the probability of an attack was too low for further investigation is technically an analysis in and of itself.
“The government did a whole lot of analysis — it just did not do what you are asking it to do,” Smith said.
Smith suggested that the organization could continue to litigate because the community group will will never be satisfied with the lab review’s outcome.
In the department’s defense, Barclay Samford, the defense attorney, said the facility works with extremely small amounts of any given hazardous chemical at one time, the employees work with nonweaponized forms of the chemicals and there are only around ten employees who have access to these materials.
Samford agreed with Smith’s conclusion that the lab has conducted an analysis regardless of how the organization approves of the final outcome of that analysis.
On the other hand, Yundt said that according to the National Environmental Policy Act, the lab has provided an insufficient analysis for a potential catastrophic pandemic even if the probability of occurrence is low.