A City Council candidate has defended a biological laboratory that might be built near Tracy, accusing project opponents Councilwoman Irene Sundberg and environmental activist Bob Sarvey of misleading locals.
“Sarvey’s and Sundberg’s information is totally inaccurate,” said Clif Schofield after a public discussion on the proposed high-security Level 4 laboratory during last week’s City Council meeting. “(Sarvey) spoke of a monkey that escaped from the primate facility at University of California, Davis. The fact is that monkey never escaped from the facility but escaped from its cage and crawled into a drain where it died.
“I would also point out that I cannot find one incidence of exposure at any Level 4 bio-lab in the U.S. … and although it’s unlikely that the Marburg or Ebola viruses would be studied there (as Sarvey warned), the largest outbreak of the Ebola killed less than 300 people and this outbreak could have been stopped at a single person if the right precautions were taken. Last year, in the U.S. alone, over 30,000 people were killed by the flu and flu-related illnesses.”
Sundberg described Sarvey as a leading expert on Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.
Sarvey said SARS, which killed 774 of the 8,098 people infected in the 2003 pandemic, escaped from Level 4 laboratories in China and Taiwan.
Secrecy surrounds the types of diseases that would be studied at the proposed bio-lab, and Sarvey said Ebola was typical of the types of disease that would be studied because it has no vaccine or cure.
“I’m not opposed to the thing — I agree with Clif that it has to be somewhere,” said Sarvey, who was given an award by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000 for his involvement with an ongoing environmental cleanup of Site 300 — the munitions test site near Tracy that is a proposed location for the bio-lab. “But Tracy carries a lot of burden for national security … and I think it should be spread around.”
Tracy already hosts a 448-acre Department of Defense depot, and Marilyn Chorley from Military Moms Tracy estimates 45 people from this city are stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Five Tracy soldiers have died in the Iraq war.
“The thing that’s sad is that for every one that comes home another goes over,” Chorley said.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Site 300, which is about a mile from Tracy’s southwestern city limits, was included by the Department of Homeland Security in a list of 18 sites that might host the new laboratory. The list is expected to be whittled down later this year.
Site 300 was created 50 years ago to test bombs and components to nuclear weapons, according to its Web site.
Councilwoman Sundberg told the meeting she became opposed to the proposal after eating dinner with a German researcher who warned her of the dangers of germs escaping from the proposed lab and infecting locals and livestock.
But council candidate and former police Chief Mike Maciel wants to know who Sundberg ate with. The Tracy Press has corroborated that Sundberg ate dinner with relatives and a German researcher who works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but Sundberg said she wanted to protect his identity.
“Who is this person What’s their background It’s a little too nebulous to just hang your hat on those facts,” said Maciel, who described the public discussion as “emotionally based — not fact based.”
“Clif Schofield is absolutely right — if a dark day comes in the future that this country is subject to a bio-terrorist attack, we’ll all thank our lucky stars that somewhere there was a lab like this working on antidotes and cures,” he said.
Maciel praised the City Council for referring the proposal to the Tracy Tomorrow and Beyond committee of nine citizens, and he said he hopes the committee will tour similar facilities in the U.S.
The city has no jurisdiction over Site 300, but Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, previously said through a spokesman that his support for the proposal would depend on the city’s position. Pombo served on the Tracy City Council before being elected to Congress in 1992.
The Department of Homeland Security has said it would take public support into consideration when it selects the winning site.
Incumbent council candidates Evelyn Tolbert and Suzanne Tucker both supported sending the issue to Tracy Tomorrow during the public discussion. Tucker has been the sole local politician willing to publicly support the project; Tolbert has repeatedly urged the community to debate its merits.
Neither Ed Gable nor Pete Mitracos, both of whom are planning commissioners and council candidates, are ready to decide whether they would support the bio-lab proposal, but in separate phone interviews they told the Tracy Press that they supported sending the issue to committee.
“I would probably have done the same thing,” Gable said. “That’s what Tracy Tomorrow was set up for — to take that input from the community and to help make a determination.”
But mayoral candidate Celeste Garamendi disagrees, as do two of her allies running for the City Council.
“Tracy Tomorrow is nothing but an extended hand of council,” said Roger Adhikari, who applied last year for a spot on the Tracy Planning Commission that was given to Mitracos, a former Tracy Tomorrow chairman.
“Somehow they want to give an illusion that Tracy Tomorrow represents the people of Tracy, and I don’t really believe that is the case,” Adhikari said.
Like all city committees, members of Tracy Tomorrow and Beyond are appointed by the council. Adhikari said he considered the committee selection process biased.
Like Adhikari, council candidate Carole Dominguez said she has yet to decide whether to support or oppose the laboratory.
“One of the issues that is really bothering me is the secrecy surrounding it — they have not released information that other applicants have released”, Dominguez said.
“I think it was inexcusable for City Council to give the issue to Tracy Tomorrow. All that’s being asked is that they write a letter or pass a resolution, so I think that’s something they ought to be deciding. There’s no reason to be delaying that decision by handing it to Tracy Tomorrow.”
Mayor Pro Tem Brent Ives, who is jostling with Garamendi in the race for mayor, has stayed out of the debate because he is employed at Lawrence Livermore.
Garamendi previously told the Tracy Press she didn’t want a Level 4 bio-lab built so close to Tracy, and last week, she said the current council should make up its own mind on the proposal without sending the issue to committee.
“They don’t want to take responsibility for it … they think it’s fine if the lab locates here but they want to have plausible deniability,” said Garamendi, who lived on a ranch in the hills several miles from Site 300 until she moved to Tracy to run for office. “It was just the council passing the buck.”
Mayor Dan Bilbrey said the committee should report back in January — by which time Bilbrey will have left office and as many as three of the other four council positions might be filled with new council members.
“The Tracy Tomorrow group was put together to look at community issues, gather facts independently, and report back to the council,” Bilbrey said. “If this isn’t an important community issue, I would be at a loss to identify one. The Tracy Tomorrow group is a well-balanced group able to accept a tough challenge. Why would anyone object to a complete review of this issue”
Councilwoman Tucker, who described the bio-lab proposal as “something totally new to all of us,” said Tracy Tomorrow had started gathering information for a special meeting with the council Oct. 4.
• To reach reporter John Upton, call 830-4274 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org