Worries about a Galveston Bio-Lab

Exclusive: The flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey has left thousands homeless in the greater Houston area but there also is rising concern about a biological lab in Galveston that houses deadly diseases, notes Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

Concern is rising for the safety of a biological lab containing deadly diseases on Galveston island, which has been hit by the massive storm devastating southeast Texas.

Galveston National Laboratory. (Photo credit Galveston National Library)

The Galveston National Laboratory on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch contains samples of hundreds of viruses, insects and microbes, which could spread extreme danger if they were to escape. There are several Bio-safety Level 4 labs at Galveston. BSL-4 is the highest level precaution taken for work with agents that can be transmitted through the air and cause fatal diseases in humans for which there are no known cures.

According to its website, the high security national bio-containment lab’s mission is to develop “therapies, vaccines, and diagnostic tests for naturally occurring emerging diseases such as SARS, West Nile encephalitis and avian influenza – as well as for microbes that might be employed by terrorists.”

There has been almost no news from Galveston as journalists have reported being blocked from reaching the island because of severe flooding. There has been no reporting at all on the condition of the lab. A call to the laboratory on Tuesday immediately went to voicemail.

The lab’s website says “plans are in place to shut down and secure all laboratory operations if a hurricane landfall is predicted near Galveston.” It says that “this shut-down and decontamination can be done quickly, with all work in the facility ceasing, the lab locked down, and all infectious agents and biological and chemical material placed into safe and secure storage.”

A 2008 article in The New York Times about the laboratory said, “Each time a hurricane approaches the island, scientists will have to stop their experiments and exterminate many of the viruses and bacteria they are studying.”

Uncertain Warning

It is not clear how much warning the Galveston lab had. Last Wednesday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tweeted that “remnants of Trop. Storm Harvey have regenerated into a Tropical Depression.” On Thursday NOAA tweeted about “rapidly strengthening … Tropical Storm #Harvey as it moves toward #Texas.” Later on Thursday it upgraded the storm to a hurricane. On Friday it was declared a Category 2 hurricane on the same day it surged to Category 4 and made landfall.

Schematic design of Galveston National Laboratory. (Photo credit: Galveston National Library)

The lab says that its $174 million facilities have been constructed to withstand a Category 5 storm. The eight-story buildings containing the labs have pilings into the earth 121 feet deep. All the lab facilities are at least 30 feet above ground, high enough to withstand even the most severe flooding, the website said. The building is supposed to survive 140 mph winds.

The National Weather Service has called this storm “unprecedented” and “beyond anything experienced” before. The storm has so far dropped 48 inches of rain on Houston, a record for a single storm in the continental U.S. About half a million people will need help from the federal government to recover.

With electric power out to at least 100,000 customers in southeast Texas, there is fear that electricity going out at the lab would release the pressure needed to contain the deadly bugs in their secure storage containers.

“State-of-the-art systems built into the design of the GNL help protect workers and prevent any release of infectious agents,” the lab says on its website. “Double and triple redundancies in equipment and systems help ensure that if an unexpected failure does occur, a backup is in place to maintain safety.”

Generators Need Fuel

The lab has back-up electric generators. In the event of a power failure, the Galveston National Laboratory “will have primary power plus independent backup power provided by multiple generators that are tested regularly,” the lab’s site said.

Hurricane Harvey’s path along the Texas coastline.

But the generators run on fuel that would have to be replenished. It is not known if the lab is accessible to emergency crews to refuel the generators, which are stored on the roof, according to the 2008 Times piece.

“As I see it the existential problem is this: What happens if and when the fuel for the back-up generators runs out?” asked University of Illinois professor Francis Boyle, an expert in biological weapons. “The negative air pressure that keeps (the) bugs in there ends. And (the) bugs can then escape.”

Boyle drafted the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, the U.S. domestic implementing legislation for the Biological Weapons Convention. He said in an email that he believes the Pentagon should send a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical control team to Galveston to secure the lab.

The lab says it maintains “impeccable, explicit, and transparent safety standards at all levels of biological containment, consistent with federal laws and guidelines.” But Boyle points out a legal difference in language between being “consistent” with the law and being “compliant” with it.

“This is a typical lawyer’s dodge,” said Boyle, an international lawyer. “For example, Bush Jr. repeatedly stated that he would treat detainees ‘consistent with’ the Geneva Conventions, and not ‘in compliance with’ the Geneva Conventions, thus setting the basis for their abuse.”

In a 2103 incident, the Galveston lab lost track of a lethal hemorrhagic fever virus sample. It is not believed to have escaped the facility, however. The release of hundreds of samples because of a power failure could present a different scenario.

Labs Hit by Hurricanes

There have been examples of severe storms causing widespread damage at bio labs. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Tulane University School of Medicine “lost years of research,” according to the journal Nature Medicine. “Tulane University … sat stranded in floodwaters for weeks,” the journal reported. “When the backup generators failed, so did the freezers and refrigerators. In the sweltering heat of a New Orleans summer, it didn’t take long for the contents to spoil.”

The world’s largest collection of lymphoma samples from rhesus macaques infected with simian immunodeficiency virus was lost.

When Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008, some labs on the University of Texas Medical Branch campus “lost backup power, which meant that freezers thawed,” the journal reported. It took three to four years for the university to recover. Galveston National Laboratory survived Ike, a Category 2 storm, without any damage.

When the Laboratory was built many people questioned the wisdom of putting BSL-4 labs in the path of hurricanes. “The University of Texas should consider locating its biohazards lab away from Galveston Island and out of harm’s way,” Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Times a month before the lab opened in November 2008. “As destructive as it was, Hurricane Ike was only a Category 2 storm. A more powerful storm would pose an even greater threat of a biohazards release,” Kramer said.

“It’s crazy, in my mind,” Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer in Houston, told the Times. “I just find an amazing willingness among the people on the Texas coast to accept risks that a lot of people in the country would not accept.”

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist. He has written for the Boston Globe, the Sunday Times of London and the Wall Street Journal among other newspapers. He is the author of “How I Lost By Hillary Clinton” published by OR Books. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.

44 comments for “Worries about a Galveston Bio-Lab

  1. Sean Barry
    September 1, 2017 at 13:18

    Yikes! Speculation, surmise, conjecture, all adding up to misinformation and unencumbered by any knowledge of biocontainment goals or methods. To begin witrh, if not Galveston, where? That is, where in the US or the world is there a site that has no long-term history of natural catastrophe? Siting of an agriculture pathogen research facility in Kansas has been roundly criticized, because of the possibility of tornadoes. Or was it hard winters? No, wait a minute, that’s the BSL4 in Winnipeg that has been operating for 25 years without mishap. But the biggest bit of misinformation in the article and in the follow-up comments was that a power failure would be disastrous, causing the release of untold numbers and varieties of human pathogens that would then be free to infect everyone in some undetermined radius. True that containment labs from Biosafety Level 2 upward generally require that “negative” (inward) air flow be provided, but that becomes important only when there has been an accidental spill, but not an accidental spill of the sort everyone seems to fear. If a worker drops a culture outside of a biological safety cabinet and the lab is under positive airflow the area near the lab could indeed become contaminated. Negative airflow exhausted through a HEPA filter (the usual requirement for most BSL3 and all BSL4 labs) will capture any and all microbial contaminants, and you should also be aware that a typical spill generates little in the way of aerosols–without aerosols there is no airborne contamination. So negative airflow is part of the redundant safeguards that all higher level containment labs that work with regulated biohazardous agents are required to have and to maintain in pristine condition. But what about a power failure? In fact a power failure in containment facility stops all air flow, so that even if a spill occurred at that moment the spilled material would go nowhere, and the worker (who must always use biohazard respiratory protection when in the lab against the possibility of a spill outside of the biosafety cabinet), as well as the surrounding area, would still be protected. Scoff if you like but that’s the basis for all biocontainment and time and experience have shown that when the HVAC system is properly designed, commissioned, and maintained it functions in exactly that manner. A complete power failure would nolt cause or allow the release of pathogens, and a power failure lasting more than a few hours would most likely result in the loss (death) of all active and frozen cultures–thawing under uncontrolled conditions kills frozen viral and bacterial stocks, and anything in active culture, upon the loss of the correct atmosphere and temperature control inside the incubator, has just moments to live. Again, scoff if you want, but folks who make their livings doing this work determined those truths a long time ago. And one other point–the lives of those same folks may very well depend on their knowledge of biocontainment, their doing everything right, and their planning and designing everything correctly, so I’d say they have some incentive. Also, again, if not Galveston, where?

    • Biosafety Professional
      September 1, 2017 at 16:13

      Finally, someone who knows what they are talking about!! Thank you for taking the words right out of my mouth.

  2. geophrian
    August 31, 2017 at 18:51

    I wasn’t concerned until I got to the comments and saw the propagandists and flagrant liars exclaiming “Fake news! Nothing to see here, move along.”

    Now I’m worried.

  3. August 31, 2017 at 17:51

    Why the hell would a lab such as this be put in a place prone to catastrophic flooding and hurricanes every 30-50 years? Who’s the knucklehead responsible?

  4. Hank
    August 31, 2017 at 16:40

    Glad my degree is not from UT.

  5. Mild-ly Fecitious
    August 31, 2017 at 14:20
  6. Mild-ly Fecitious
    August 31, 2017 at 14:03

    Eclipse + Harvey


    Monsanto and Chemical Giants have louder voices
    in the take down of Administrative Gov’t.

    FG Farben, a Nazi Father of Chemical Giants

    Enron’s Electricity Attack Against California
    — a privately funded plunder and theft
    by manipulation of electricity prices they
    extorted Billions of Dollars from The People.

    the name, FG Farben, Master Chemist

  7. Dr. Walt Mellgren Jr.
    August 31, 2017 at 10:10

    This is the most dangerous catastrophe facing The State of Texas, and The United States of America, and even The Entire Earth! No effort or expense should be spared! This is an EMERGENCY! Do something Now!

  8. Tom Harrison
    August 31, 2017 at 08:57

    Galveston was not affected by the storm. Plase get your facts straight! Everything’s open. Roads are dry.

  9. kpinvt
    August 31, 2017 at 08:53

    I’m hoping there is a mistake in the accompanying graphic that shows the BSL 4 lab, the most dangerous level, on the ground floor.

  10. August 30, 2017 at 18:00

    This story is not correct. There was no breach of any sort during the storm. The GNL had no damage or loss of either physical or biological security. I work in the communication department for UTMB and you can reach me at 409-772-8790.

    • Zachary Smith
      August 30, 2017 at 21:45

      I work in the communication department for UTMB…

      Considering how badly you misread this essay, mentioning working in the “communications department” was probably a mistake.

      • Joe Lauria
        August 31, 2017 at 17:13

        Thank you Zachary. Many people in Galveston have completely misread my article and I’m not sure why.

  11. Joe Tedesky
    August 30, 2017 at 16:23

    Hats off to Joe Lauria for some excellent niche reporting. I say niche, because so far I have not heard of this biolab problem on the MSM. So, thanks Joe, you are a blessing to have around.

    I also have an old friend who was once a daring helicopter pilot in Vietnam, I would bet he could land a helicopter somehow on that roof. Then again, because I have done this once in the Navy, I could propel down a rope hanging from the helicopter. I jest, but at the same time I’m serious. We could drop Brad & Realist in there since they would probably know what to do. Again I joke with you, but wouldn’t you think that someone would have created a disaster plan B?

    Again Mr Lauria thanks for giving us the news that the corporate news wouldn’t talk about, because they are busy reporting on Russia-Gate or Nazi’s in Virginia.

    • August 30, 2017 at 18:03

      This story is not correct. There was no breach of any sort during the storm. The GNL had no damage or loss of either physical or biological security. I work in the communication department for UTMB and you can reach me at 409-772-8790.

    • Stiv
      August 30, 2017 at 21:28

      I agree that this is an interesting article. The thinking here is, from the sounds of it, they’ve anticipated a perceived “worst case scenario” and built some infrastructure around it, but one never knows if planners got it right. Tulane should have been bitch slapped and who knows why UT would build in an area fraught with danger, but hey…I live a a earthquake zone and worked at a fab facility when the 1989 quake hit. Our ops were down for hours only..for precaution. Not the same as infectious diseases..it only money..but they had it figured out. Hopefully UT did the same.

      Then again, one has to wonder if locating in that area was pure politics..that would guarantee a stupid decision.

  12. Mild-ly Fecitious
    August 30, 2017 at 14:23

    Here’s one example of how the Dachau entomological lab used this wiggle room:

    In a progress report dated 23 September 1944 and marked ‘secret’, [lab head Eduard] May mentioned Anopheles research being carried out ‘in order to clarify the question whether an arti?cial mass infection of the malaria parasite on to humans is possible and how one can counter an action that aims at such mass infection. It is anticipated to extend these investigations also to other questions that fall under the area of biological warfare and that concern insects that in?ict harm to humans’ (May’s emphasis). Unlike other authors, I ?nd these comments may be interpreted as defensive rather than offensive warfare. However, the protocols of the actual experimental trials provide a little more insight.

    Reading through the details of the mosquito research, says Reinhardt, “This wording, particularly in the German original, strongly suggests that May knew about the planned work of mosquito release, he knew about the offensive nature of this research and he made a recommendation based on these trials.”

    Reinhardt’s research also suggested another research program, a classified project code-named Siebenschläfer, or Dormouse, that may have been intended to use fleas to spread the plague. Of course, much of the research would also have carried defensive goals, says Reinhardt: “perhaps its purpose was to prevent plague epidemics in the concentration camps that could bring SS guards into danger and, by increased mortality of prisoners, threaten the availability of work slaves that were already in short supply.”

    The research is just another sign that, even after so many years, the full scale of the Nazi’s campaign has still not fully come to light.


    Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/nazi-scientists-wanted-use-mosquitoes-send-diseases-behind-enemy-lines-180949764/#17sEe041d0RqI1kY.99

  13. Mild-ly Fecitious
    August 30, 2017 at 14:16

    August 3, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    I’m Russia and I’m a lot afraid of USA I live in Crimea and the life is so good since we are in Russia more money more liberty no crimes from Ukrainian government. We don’t want our country being a satellite of USA like our French friends . The American is the agressor provoc ISIS WITH Bush jr and now wants a war against Russia since 10 years your country is against us with your NATO BIG MACHINE OF AMERICAN WAR AND PROPAGANDA Nazi . During Obama era they created Ukrainian crisis and supported Ukrainian nazi like Hitler . During tchétchènia war you support Islamic like ISIS sell weapons and take Islamic in different places with trucks . During GEORGIAN WAR WHEN their president attacked South Ossetia in their country where live some Russian they countinur in North Ossetia where ITS RUSSIA SO THEY ATTACKED US THEIR president said in all western media that Russia attacked that was false . So please accept that your domination is finished we don’t want to be Americans like our European foreigners . Thanks you very much NO WAR DONT ATACK US PLEASE USA PLEASE DONT BECAME HITLER ( sry about my English)

    • Cookies
      August 30, 2017 at 23:19

      You are smarter than most Americans combined.

  14. Realist
    August 30, 2017 at 14:15

    This catastrophe will end up decimating the insurance industry, the real estate industry, the new and used car sales industries, also possibly the big research and development, aerospace and medical sciences industries in East Texas for years to come. Then people will take note that the entire rest of the Southeastern United States is at risk for the same mega-hurricanes that have been predicted to accompany global warming and are now actually coming on line. Or, will they? Will the largest weather event in the history of the United States shock folks into accepting that maybe the climatologists are not just peddling a hoax to destroy capitalism? People, I don’t know how the American economy and the American taxpayer can continue to support the necessary response to major disasters like this one and unending wars across the globe at the same time from the same dwindling source of revenue. Will this be a moment of clarity? Or more fodder for fake news and propaganda?

    Many biomedical researchers are going to have their careers ruined when their genetically pure-bred animals and strains of bacteria and viruses, the results of decades of work in many cases, are killed off in the hot steaming flood waters. We should also be concerned about what might get out if the containment facilities are breached. We have enough newly emerging and resurgent diseases to deal with already. At least coastal Texas doesn’t have any nuclear power plants to worry about. We can’t say the same about Louisiana and Florida if a repeat of Harvey were to play in either state. Time to kiss off Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine and start tending to obvious but costly safeguards on our own soil.

    • Mild-ly Fecitious
      August 30, 2017 at 14:53

      All that you wrote is true, Realist.
      How deep and/or how long?

      How many stock market drops

      will it take to somehow
      prevent Many Sorrows?

    • B
      August 30, 2017 at 16:11
    • backwardsevolution
      August 30, 2017 at 22:12

      Realist – I was struck with how flat it was on the southeast coast of the U.S. when I was there. Someone told me that at one time the ocean had been hundreds of miles inland. I didn’t doubt it, as it looked to me like I was standing on an old sea bed.

      On another hopeful note, the permafrost is melting in Siberia and exposing something very deadly that’s been hidden for a very long time: anthrax. There have already been several deaths.

      Tick tock.

      • Realist
        August 31, 2017 at 00:50

        Yep, depending upon the exact date of a snapshot in time, the ocean came all the way up to Southern Illinois, not even accounting for the massive continental drift caused by plate tectonics. It encompassed all the dark green in this illustration:


        At other times it even submerged the tan “central plains” on the same illustration. I used to collect trilobites and other fossils as a kid in Illinois.

      • Realist
        August 31, 2017 at 00:58

        Yes, I attached a geologic map to illustrate your point, but, alas, it has been disappeared. I predict it shall return.

  15. Mild-ly Fecitious
    August 30, 2017 at 14:09

    The use of chemicals was weaponized by Nazi scientists.
    Then became powerful in Operation Paperclip/right wing
    Brought to you by /sponsored Dulles Brothers purveyors of

    Scientific Horrors ; zombies and monsters who’ll murder you

    at the ATM as cities fell into un-funded mode as commanded by
    New Gov’t Authorities designed to oversee econo-groups/
    “constituency play/ as if in A Nonexistent ‘Middle-Class.

    “How To Erase The Middle Class” as designed
    byAuthoritarian Takeover under Leader Trump


  16. Jim O'Connor
    August 30, 2017 at 13:18

    “In a 2103 incident”?

    • August 31, 2017 at 16:18

      wow u rly cracked the code! a typo! excellent work! are you a copy editor!?

  17. Mild-ly Fecitious
    August 30, 2017 at 12:16
  18. Brad Owen
    August 30, 2017 at 11:44

    Well this is the upshot of all the “Government is the problem”, deregulation & privatization, States-Rights-trumps-Federal-Law BS we’ve been going through for what, 40 years now? It was Prez Carter back in the 70s saying how our infrastructure is getting decrepit and needs upgrading, but the “no new taxes” folks shot all of that down. Emergency generators happen to be one of my areas of concern, as an electrician. If the Generators are fueled by diesel fuel, then there is a serious risk. If powered by Natural Gas piped in, then there is a better chance they’ll last longer, IF the pipes are intact, AND the pumping station is far enough away from the disaster area. If the generators are on the roof, then there is a good chance they are N.G. powered (my rooftop generators are N.G. generators). There should have been Federal Regs in play, saying to locate such dangerous facilities in safer areas than hurricane/tornado alley, not to mention way more adequate water-management infrastructure in place, but we’ll have to defeat the “Gov’t is the problem/No New Taxes” crowd to get solutions in place. If the Netherlands can keep half their Country dry despite being below sea level, then I know this problem is quite solvable, just not by the “G.I.T.P./N.N.T.” crew. Again, China and Japan have a generous standing invitation to us, to join them in New Silk Road policies and have offered to help finance & build our infrastructure (China realistically estimates its an 8 trillion $ job). We will need to reopen the Roosevelt playbook and revive the RFC credit-issuing institution (those laws are still on the books), after smacking down the useless (to the General Welfare) Wall Street gambling casino with Glass-Steagall and bankruptcy reorganization, and seize the Fed to turn it into a Nat’l/Public Banking institution. This is the ONLY way Trump will fulfill his campaign promise to rebuild the infrastructure, and Mnuchin will drag his “Wall Street” feet all the way to Bankruptcy Court. He is an enemy to Trump and to the people’s General Welfare.

  19. Zachary Smith
    August 30, 2017 at 11:08

    “As I see it the existential problem is this: What happens if and when the fuel for the back-up generators runs out?” asked University of Illinois professor Francis Boyle, an expert in biological weapons. “The negative air pressure that keeps (the) bugs in there ends. And (the) bugs can then escape.”

    If the containment of deadly diseases is dependent upon artificially produced “negative air pressure” then somebody ought to be looking at penalties ranging from getting fired to prison time.

    That the germs and viruses might just rot and lose “research” doesn’t really worry me, but their getting out on account of a simple power failure does.

    • Realist
      August 30, 2017 at 17:00

      Anyone who thinks this is a one-off in Houston doesn’t remember the floods of 1974. They had what they thought was a hundred year event that flooded and destroyed tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars of research labs, equipment, animal colonies, microbial cultures and cell lines used in cancer research. I heard about it first hand when working at the UC medical school in Orange County, CA. My boss’s best friend, who had been a prof at the U of I-Urbana, opted to take a position at UT-Houston rather than make the move to SoCal, for which he had also interviewed. He was in town to tie up some financial transactions (basically to back out of the UC deal) and had quite the horror story to tell about Houston. Boy, did he ever choose poorly.

      If there’s a lesson, it’s that environmental risks are usually low-balled and proper precautions never taken even in the face of bitter experience. Whatever money is poured into the task of rebuilding won’t even be enough to return the status quo, let alone establishing needed safeguards. Oh, we have plenty of regulatory agencies telling us all what we need to do and what we need to construct to comply with safety standards these days, but the money to make it all happen is always in short supply. So, guess what?

    • August 30, 2017 at 18:02

      This story is not correct. There was no breach of any sort during the storm. The GNL had no damage or loss of either physical or biological security. I work in the communication department for UTMB and you can reach me at 409-772-8790.

      • Realist
        August 30, 2017 at 19:44

        Your reading of the story is not correct. No where does it say that there WAS a breach. It only discusses potential dangers of a breach if all power to the structure is lost.

        The wisdom of building such a facility in such a potentially dangerous location, subject to massive flooding and category 5 force winds which have occurred on multiple occasions and are guaranteed to occur again, is certainly open for debate, is it not? Or, perhaps some of the research involving the deadliest of pathogens could be more wisely moved to more secure locations where fuel to provide backup power does not have to be transported without interruption onto an island during a raging hurricane. The entire city of Galveston was washed out to sea in 1900, and other major storms have been through there several times since. This scenario was not unanticipated and it is certainly appropriate to revisit the issue in light of added experience. Certainly the Fukushima disaster should have taught us not to make too many assumptions about risk when Mother Nature is a major player.

        I think that you and Mr. Lauria do need to have a chat about what he wrote and why.

        • Skip Scott
          August 31, 2017 at 11:59

          You hit the nail on the head. Remember the West Fertilizer co. explosion of 2013? How about the Texas City refinery explosion of 1947? I could go on and on. Texas does not exactly have a good record when it comes to safety, or compliance with regulations. It is the height of hubris to build such a facility in Galveston, or anywhere Mother Nature has such a history of ravaging the countryside.

        • Joe Lauria
          August 31, 2017 at 21:18

          Thank you Realist.

      • SteveK9
        August 30, 2017 at 22:14

        Thanks. I wondered if anyone who actually knows something might comment. This story is ridiculous speculation.

      • Joe Lauria
        August 31, 2017 at 13:14

        The article does not say there was a breach. Please stop misrepresenting what it says. Given longstanding concerns about the lab, there was legitimate worry about its condition particularly since reporters could not get to Galveston, the local press ignored the story and your office for five days irresponsibly did not issue a statement to allay legitimate concerns until my article appeared.

        • Joe Lauria
          August 31, 2017 at 13:19

          And my call to the lab went unanswered.

    • backwardsevolution
      August 30, 2017 at 22:03

      Zachary – and of course we have Fukushima with its power loss, and then when they went to crank up the generators (which were on the MAIN FLOOR AND NOT UP OFF THE GROUND), they didn’t work. Whoops! At least that’s what I think I remember.

Comments are closed.