Galveston Bio-Lab Declared Safe

Exclusive: Flooding from Hurricane Harvey triggered a dangerous chemical explosion outside Houston, but a bio-lab in Galveston bristled over concerns about the potential release of its dangerous pathogens, reports Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

The Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, which contains samples of some of the most deadly and incurable diseases, has issued a statement reporting itself safe five days after Hurricane Harvey struck on Friday amid safety concerns for a lab built in one of America’s most active hurricane zones.

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

The lab issued a statement late on Wednesday saying, “The GNL reported that the facility continued operations without interruption and did not incur any damage, loss of power or biocontainment during the storm. “

Until Wednesday, there had been a news blackout about the lab since the Category 4 hurricane struck the island of Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico, where the lab is located. Reporters had been unable to reach the island because of severe flooding and the local press did not report on the fate of the lab. A voice message I left at the lab on Tuesday was never returned.

The lack of news about the lab fueled legitimate worry about its condition, given longstanding concerns about placing the lab in the path of hurricanes.

On its website, the lab says it has been constructed to withstand a Category 5 storm. But when it was built in 2008, local environmentalists raised the alarm. Hurricane Ike, weaker than Harvey, hit Galveston in 2005 and had knocked out back-up generators at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where the lab is located.

“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 New York 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. Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall on Friday night.

“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.”

Those fears were raised again this week in the absence of news about the lab. Professor Francis Boyle, who drafted the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, the U.S. domestic implementing legislation for the Biological Weapons Convention, said he feared for the lab’s safety.

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

The $174 million lab, built with federal funds, says on its site that it maintains “impeccable, explicit, and transparent safety standards at all levels of biological containment, consistent with federal laws and guidelines.”

But a 2014 article in The Houston Chronicle reported that no such federal guidelines exist. “The U.S. Government Accountability Office … released a study that repeated its findings last year that there is still no government agency responsible for overseeing the safety of some 400 laboratories nationwide authorized to handle hazardous biological material,” the Chronicle reported. “The study also found that such laboratories are built without regard for need or assessment of risk and that no national standards exist for their construction and operations.”

Legitimate Concerns

Amid the silence from Galveston I accurately reported these legitimate concerns about the lab in an article for that appeared on Wednesday. Given what was known when it was written, it was balanced, with much space given to what the lab says were its precautions in the case of a hurricane. It also pointed out past concerns with the lab and detailed other cases where hurricanes had damaged laboratories.

Hurricane Harvey’s path.

I also posted the article directly onto The Huffington Post website and sold a shorter version of it to Independent Newspapers of South Africa, publishers of more than 20 dailies, including the Johannesburg Star, Cape Argus and the Pretoria News, all of which published the piece.

The belated statement about the safety of the lab was released only after the University of Texas Medical Branch, where the lab is located, reacted to the story on The Huffington Post.

“There are inaccurate reports that the Galveston National Laboratory (GNL) at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston may have been compromised because of Hurricane Harvey,” the full statement said. “These false reports do a disservice to all of the people in our community and the dedicated scientists and workers on staff at the GNL. The GNL reported that the facility continued operations without interruption and did not incur any damage, loss of power or biocontainment during the storm. At no time was there cause of concern for the safety and security of GNL personnel, the research or the community.”

Lab Violates its Procedures

My article did not say the lab “may have been compromised” but only that it “could” be. By delaying this statement for five days there was indeed legitimate cause for concern. In addition, the statement says, “The GNL reported that the facility continued operations without interruption…”

Galveston National Laboratory. (Photo credit Galveston National Library)

But 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.”

The 2008 article in the 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.”

The lab’s statement admits then that it may have violated its own procedures in preparing for a hurricane, acknowledging that “the facility continued operations without interruption.”

In a separate statement, the director of the lab, James LeDuc said his staff had been monitoring the storm for “two weeks”, though it was only declared a hurricane the day before it made landfall.

“We have been tracking this storm for the better part of two weeks and stopping work in preparation for it,” LeDuc said. It’s not clear when the work was stopped, what work it was, or for how long. This would appear to contradict the lab’s statement that work was “uninterrupted.” A spokesman for the lab did not respond to an email seeking clarification.

Serious questions are raised if the lab ignored its own procedures and then did not issue a statement for five days. The lab came through the storm, according to its own statement, but the staff could not have foreseen how bad the storm would be.

Raul Reyes, director of media relations at the University of Texas Medical Branch, wrote me in an email that it was “disingenuous” of me to base my report “on the basis of one unreturned call.” But this was “disingenuous,” I responded, since Reyes knew I rested my report on longstanding concerns about the lab. I suggested to him that the lab had let the nation down by failing to issue a statement for five days after the storm hit.

Twitter Attack

A reporter from the local Galveston Daily News, John Wayne Ferguson, then launched a broadside against me on Twitter. He demanded that I print a correction. When I asked him what was factually wrong with my piece that needed correcting, he did not respond. When I asked him why the News did not write a story about the lab, he likewise did not respond. When I told him it was responsible reporting to raise these concerns, he responded: “Bullshit.”

It was instructive about how establishment media, large and small, have lost their skepticism and adversarial role against those in authority. The existence of the laboratory in their town, and the longstanding, genuine concerns about it, should have been a focal point of the newspapers’ coverage of the hurricane even if only to report on how well the safety procedures had been implemented. It seems clear the local newspaper did not take seriously any of the concerns about this lab and where it is located, with Ferguson even ridiculing those concerns.

A reporter from the Columbus Dispatch, Marty Schladen, then joined the fray on Twitter, asking me sarcastically, “What are they supposed to write? All’s well at the lab?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It is one of the first stories they should have looked into and written when Harvey hit to allay national and local concerns.”

A second reporter at the News, Marissa Barnett, initially accused me of “sensationalism” and “fear-mongering.” But when I explained that given the concerns of building such a lab in a hurricane zone the News had been irresponsible not to have covered the lab, she acknowledged those concerns and said the paper should have written a “brief.” I think it called for a major story in the local paper to look into how the lab was dealing with the storm.

Joshua Frank, the managing editor of CounterPunch, was the only one who seemed to get it. He wrote: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a story that should’ve been covered by local media. The University should have said it was safe to begin with.”

The only story the News eventually wrote about the lab was by Ferguson, attacking me for reporting a “rumor” and quoting the director, LeDuc, as though it had been a couple of sunny days in Galveston. “There was not a whole lot going on to begin with,” he said. Even in this article the News did not take the opportunity to question LeDuc in detail about what precautions, if any, the lab had taken.


The lab is something of a cash cow for Galveston, about which the community appears to be defensive. When its construction was announced in 2003 as a bio-defense laboratory in the wake of 9/11, it was said that it would provide at least 200 jobs and pump $75 million a year into the island’s economy.

“Bo” Quiroga, then mayor of Galveston, told the Chronicle, “I think that probably, if you take a look at some of the cities in the running for this, there was nowhere else that had stronger community support.”

During the day Tuesday an editor from the Huffington Post informed me by email that my story was being retracted because LeDuc had stated that the lab was secure. I responded that the story should not be pulled because it was accurate regarding the concerns. It did not say that microbes had escaped. By retracting the story, the Huffington Post fed the misguided impression that the story was wrong. I argued to no avail that what was needed was a follow-up to update the story with the belated statement that the lab was unharmed.

On Wednesday, Esquire, which had linked to my article in a story about environmental hazards in Texas during the storm, caved to pressure from Ferguson and the lab that there was nothing to be concerned about and published a clarification.

Earlier in the day I received an email from editors at Independent Newspapers in South Africa. They had received a complaint from Christopher Smith Gonzalez from the university’s communications office. He falsely said that my story was “not correct” because, “There was no breach of any sort during the storm.”

An editor wrote me, “we never said there was a breach, but only fears of a breach.” He refused to retract the story and asked for a follow-up piece, which is what you’ve also been reading here.

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.

25 comments for “Galveston Bio-Lab Declared Safe

  1. Jim McKeith,MD
    September 2, 2017 at 17:13

    I work in the building next to the lab. A statement wasn’t made because there was no issue. While the University prepared for potential impacts, the facts is that we were impacted only because a lot of our staff live closer to Houston. Areas about a mile away had water up to the curb (The strand, Harborside, west bound broadway) forcing us to use an alternate route but there was no flooding or ponding near campus. It rained. That’s about it.

    • Skip Scott
      September 4, 2017 at 08:51

      I presume you know your report is completely immaterial to the issue at hand. The lab was built in an area too dangerous for what it contains, and keeping the public informed instead of waiting five days when the category of the storm changed so suddenly was irresponsible. I suspect they didn’t want to make any statement because they wish to keep a “low profile” since they realize the stupidity of the location of their lab and don’t want to be pressured and end up seeing such big money leave town.

      • Joe Lauria
        September 4, 2017 at 09:38

        You get it Scott.

        • Joe Lauria
          September 4, 2017 at 09:39

          I mean Skip!

    • Joe Lauria
      September 4, 2017 at 08:55

      Truly astonishing. The existence of the lab in a hurricane zone *is*
      the issue. This was the first hurricane to strike since the lab opened
      amid concerns for placing it in the path of hurricanes. Those concerns
      rose again as Harvey hit. Ken Kramer, formerly of Sierra Club, again
      expressed to me that he had those concerns again this week. This was
      the big moment to see how the lab would fare and irresponsibly no
      statement was made and the local paper wrote nothing.

      That the lab made no statement and the paper wrote no story indicates
      they both dismiss these concerns as meaningless. You and others in
      Galveston knew the situation but those outside did not. This is a
      national lab paid for by all US taxpayers. It’s not a Texas lab. It
      should have been a priority to report on the condition of the lab. You should be happy
      people were concerned about it. Instead it seems to be taken as an
      insult by people in Galveston.

  2. Realist
    September 2, 2017 at 03:39

    Unless there is some secret remediation work ongoing based upon unpublished research, it seems to me that the “Cynthia” (aka “Synthia”) horror story results from a conflation of three separate lines of research.

    1. There has been a notable increase in the incidence of bacterial necrotizing fasciitis among people exposed to water from the Gulf of Mexico. However, I have usually seen the life-threatening condition ascribed to a commonly-occurring bacterium called Vibrio vulnificans.

    2. Craig Venter (along with Francis Collins, the man most responsible for sequencing the complete human genome) does run a biotech institute named after himself in which one of the most important projects has been to create, from synthetic chemicals off the shelf, a living bacterium with the fewest possible working parts. These would be deemed the absolute essential components for the most simple living cell to which additional traits could be added, through genetic engineering, to accomplish targeted goals, for example, the expression of enzymes allowing for the complete degradation of hydrocarbon pollutants. So far, Venter’s group has been able to completely synthesize a bacterial chromosome containing about 470 genes (the average bacterial chromosome contains about 4500 genes) and insert it into the protoplast of a different bacterial species that had its own DNA entirely removed. The resultant “hybrid” grows vigorously (Td=3 hr) under rigorously defined laboratory conditions, but would normally quickly die in the “outside world” devoid of the required substrates. About 2/3rds of the functions provided by the minimal genome have been identified, 1/3rd have not. One gathers from published reports that nothing practical has yet been attempted using this “artificial life form” presently called Synthia 3.0.

    3. Naturally-occurring bacterial species that can routinely use hydrocarbons as their sole carbon and energy source have been known for many decades. There is no reason to recreate them from a Synthia template, though I suppose, if the hydrocarbon targets are in water laced with high levels of the highly toxic/carcinogenic dispersant/emulsifying agent Corexit one might wish to engineer the existing bugs (or introduce additional species of bugs) with genes that can degrade or at least survive the Corexit. (Corexit is a witches brew of petroleum distillates, sorbitan, butanedioate, 2-butoxyethanol, propylene glycol and “proprietary” organic sulfonates.) I should think any bacteria introduced into the environment with a goal of degrading the crude oil and the equally dangerous Corexit would, at this time, be strains of well-understood, easily handled extant species, not new forms of expensive, highly fragile, untested “artificial life.”

    The crude oil itself, to say nothing of the equally bad Corexit, is so toxic and corrosive to living tissue, that it is not surprising that a multitude of organisms from fish to dolphins to birds and human beings have been compromised and debilitated by it to an extent that they become easy pickings for opportunistic flesh eating bacteria like Vibrio vulnificans (or species of Aeromonas, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Clostridium and Klebsiella). The hydrocarbons in the oil and the poisons in the Corexit irritate and ulcerate the skin, enter the bloodstream, poison the liver, shut down other organs and knock out the immune system, leaving your entire body defenseless against such opportunistic pathogens (that would not harm you if you were healthy). You might ultimately develop cancer from significant exposure to these toxic chemicals even if you routinely bathed in disinfectants.

    Though it is always possible that some corporation or government agency is carrying out research under the radar, with no publications or press announcements (and I can’t claim to be aware of everything going on), no super-secret Frankenstein creation of Craig Venter is required to account for the outbreak of necrotizing fasciitis in humans and animals in the Gulf.

    There is an article on the well-characterised, off-the-shelf bacteria (lots of names like Cycloclasticus, Oceanospiralales and Alcanovorax) used in the remediation of the BP oil spill in a 2015 issue of Scientific American. The products are actually available to the public for sale through Walmart, Amazon and other vendors. Using something like Synthia totally not needed, not warranted, not justified, not happening in my opinion.

  3. September 1, 2017 at 20:26

    This bears repeating: “A 2014 article in The Houston Chronicle reported that no such federal guidelines exist. ‘The U.S. Government Accountability Office … released a study that repeated its findings last year that there is still no government agency responsible for overseeing the safety of some 400 laboratories nationwide authorized to handle hazardous biological material,’ the Chronicle reported. ‘The study also found that such laboratories are built without regard for need or assessment of risk and that no national standards exist for their construction and operations.’ ”

    I live 2000 miles from Houston and I feel not at all safe.

    Rest in peace, Gary Webb, knowing you are not alone and that courageous reporters such as Joe Lauria are carrying on.

  4. Karen Juenemann
    September 1, 2017 at 16:55

    Thank you Joe for paying attention. I believe you weren’t trying to create a panic nationwide but perhaps issuing a reminder that we all need to heighten our awareness of our environment in the broadest sense.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    September 1, 2017 at 14:35

    You did the right thing Mr Lauria. In fact the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010 where the clean up people used a chemical to soak up the oil in the water, has now turned into a creeping oceanic blob of a man made bacteria, which can eat flesh, and has infected many from the little to no news there is reported about this infectious man eating mess of a blob. No one knows how to destroy it, and it has the name of ‘Cynthia’. I’d reference a link, but this story is elusive as all heck, and you just might google it for more information. Maybe this man made bacteria isn’t suppose to be reported on, as apparently the Galveston Bio-Lab was a hands off reporting item. Thanks again Joe Lauria, I appreciated your alerting us of the potential danger. Joe

    • Andrew
      September 1, 2017 at 23:37

      Wow, your scientific ignorance is staggering.

      After a quick search, it seems this “Cyntheia” that you are referring to is one of synthetic bacteria (or you say man-made) bacteria from the Venter Institute. Indeed, in 2010, they transferred a genome of Mycoplasma mycoides that was synthesized chemically into a recipient cell as a proof of concept for synthetic biology. However, while Mycoplasma mycoides is known for causing disease in cattle, it has nothing to do with cleaning up oil.

      On the other hand, what you mean by “chemical to soak up oil” turning into “man man bacteria” is beyond human comprehension. Please do not spread scientific ignorance.

      • Zachary Smith
        September 2, 2017 at 01:17

        I made a search too.

        “Will Bacterial Plague Follow Crude Oil Spill Along Gulf Coast?”

        “There’s no question bacteria, in general, increase following spills, and this includes Vibrios,” said Jim Oliver, a Vibrio specialist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Whether the pathogenic Vibrios “significantly increase is unsure, I would say, but they are coastal bacteria … so [they] could well increase either as a direct result of oil degradation or as a side effect of the added nutrient levels.”

        The gulf oil spill was badly reported and took place years ago. Corexit seems to have done a lot more harm than good. I doubt if I ever again step foot in the ocean of my own free will.

        I’ve no idea whether or not the Cynthia story is true or not. But I will say that it sounds exactly like something a Big Corporation might do.

        • Andrew
          September 2, 2017 at 08:44

          @ Zachary Smith

          Does your article say flesh eating bacteria? No. It says Vibrio species is “the most common vector for seafood contamination.”

          Are big corporation acting maliciously? Of course! Is the oil spill a serious concern? Yes! Can it enrich for pathogenic bacteria and lead to forborne illnesses? Yes! But, these facts have nothing to do with Cynthia.

          Oil-eating bacteria are EVERYWHERE in the ocean, and there is no need for Craig Venter to synthesize it. Even if he did, bacteria in the ocean are better at surviving in the ocean due to billions of years of evolution than anything Craig Venter can come up with. Nature is smarter than Craig Venter. Just because you rightfully distrust big corporations, that doesn’t mean you should invent pseudoscience, like the anti-vaxxers. Fake science is dangerous.

          • Joe Tedesky
            September 2, 2017 at 09:04

            Andrew, I apologize for the scare, but if you read my comment I’m talking more about under reporting, than what knowledge I have regarding Cynthia ((Synthia). Where is the truth to this story?

            Besides that I’m not so sure that Mr Lauria reporting on a bio-lab location being in a hazardous spot, isn’t a story. Shouldn’t locations of such facilities be a national conversation?

            Also, is the bio-lab telling us the truth? Ask a veteran of Desert Storm, or a Vietnam vet, if they have ever been lied too when it comes to harmful chemicals in the air. With this kind of skepticism isn’t Joe Lauria doing us a public service to alert we the public to such potential dangers?

            So, is Cynthia (Synthia) real, or is this bacteria scare just ‘fake news’?

          • Andrew
            September 2, 2017 at 09:51

            @ Joe Tedesky

            I have working on environmental engineering and microbiology for 16 years, and must say Cynthia (Synthia) is fake news. Craig Venter’s team synthesized a bacterium with one of the smallest genome for Bacteria, which is not suited for biodegrading petro. Degrading petro requires a whole sweep of enzymes.

            The conversion of whether Bio-Lab should or should not move needs to happen outside of pseudoscience.

          • Joe Tedesky
            September 2, 2017 at 10:40

            That’s a relief thanks Andrew. Joe

  6. ScottB
    September 1, 2017 at 14:06

    This is not the whole story ………………

    Hurricane’s are notorious for bringing pathogens from the ocean to the land. For example, the incidence of infection among Canary Island Date Palms for a particular virus (I don’t recall its name) rises geometrically following the storm.

    Will Texans suffer no effects from a biological agent introduced into the Gulf of Mexico by mankind?

    “One could recall that back in April 2010 an explosion at a British Petroleum oil rig resulted in millions of barrels of oil contaminating the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the drastic measures taken to prevent an environmental catastrophe, an oil slick produced by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill covered over sixty thousand square miles.

    As one of the means of addressing the environmental catastrophe on their hands, Washington decided to take drastic measures, regardless of the possible consequences of those actions. It was at that time when an artificially created microorganism nicknamed Cynthia was unleashed, without any kind of examination of the possible threat it may pose to the environment.

    Cynthia is the brainchild of the J. Craig Venter Institute — which was engaged in genetic engineering experiments since the beginning of the 21st century — and Synthetic Genomics Inc, and was created and funded directly by BP. It was believed that Cynthia feeds on oil, but it turns out now that it is equally willing to consume all forms of organic life as well…

    In 2011, Cynthia was unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico and in its initial stages of life it was absorbing oil slicks at breathtaking speed. In January, 2011 the Register reported that scientists were particularly impressed by the speed with which the bacteria was eating up its “meal”.

    But then this bacteria mutated and soon was feeding on organic lifeforms. Strange reports started coming from the US, like five thousand birds falling victims of an “unknown disease” in Arkansas, or more that a hundred thousand dead fish found off the coast of north Louisiana. It was also reported that a total of 128 British Petroleum employees that participated in the liquidation of the oil slick were struck by some mysterious illness. According to various sources they were forbidden to seek relief in public hospitals, to prevent them from talking to anyone about what has happened to them …”

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 1, 2017 at 20:05

      ScottB you have the story I was referring too in my post. Great! I heard on CNN that the results of the water tested in the Houston area had all sorts of bad bacteria in it, and the scientists were still trying to reach an opinion of what all is in that water. You make a good point Scott, that ‘Cynthia’ may have been transported to land. Thanks again. Joe

  7. Zachary Smith
    September 1, 2017 at 11:54

    In the world inhabited by John Wayne Ferguson and his bosses, Fukushima doesn’t exist. All they need is reassurance by a government “communications official” that all is well, and their minds are immediately at ease.

    Here in Indiana I may seem to be far away from Galveston, but when the issue is deadly diseases intertwined with genuine hurricanes and potential tsunamis, I’m entirely too close to the place.

    • Skip Scott
      September 1, 2017 at 17:19

      Anywhere on earth may be entirely too close. I am reminded of the Terry Gilliam movie Twelve Monkeys. It is totally irresponsible to put such a dangerous lab in such a vulnerable location considering the possible consequences. Fukushima is an apt example of the hubris that infects our decision makers, and of the dire consequences when things go wrong. Joe Lauria has done us a great service by staying on top of this story. I wish there were more like him, and we still had a MSM that would hire people like Joe and give him the coverage and compensation he deserves.

      • Joe Lauria
        September 1, 2017 at 21:17

        Thanks. I worked nearly 30 years for corporate media. I’m glad to be out of it.

        • Skip Scott
          September 1, 2017 at 21:58

          Yes Joe, I imagine you’re glad to be gone from the corporate sponsored media. I just wish the MSM was no longer corporate sponsored and that a larger number of people heard the kinds of truth you have to tell. More power to you.

          • Joe Lauria
            September 2, 2017 at 11:51

            Thank you.

  8. Sam F
    September 1, 2017 at 11:39

    I would not worry about the backlash to the story about safety concerns, but am glad to have this clarification of the earlier concerns. There are serious prior events of biohazard releases, such as the apparent involvement of the bioweapons lab on Long Island in causing the Lyme Disease outbreak in the US some years ago, and it is odd to have such a facility on Galveston Island, without a federal standard for safety, or other assurances. More coverage is warranted.

  9. September 1, 2017 at 11:36

    “It was instructive about how establishment media, large and small, have lost their skepticism and adversarial role against those in authority.”…right on, Joe Lauria!

    • September 1, 2017 at 14:53

      The opposition to Lauria’s concerns reminded me of Ibsen’s classic play “Enemy of the People”(1882)…a doctor discovers that the town baths are contaminated by local industry but the mayor and the press want to conceal the results for fear of economic consequences; a theme that has become unfortunately too relevant in modern times.

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