Documents Show Lapses at Hamilton Federal Bio Lab

Employees are working on a vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus at Hamilton federal lab

By Molly Priddy

BOZEMAN — Several security violations — including workers failing to swipe their own key cards to access secure areas — occurred at a federal laboratory in Hamilton where employees are working on a vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus, documents show.

Rocky Mountain Laboratories has a high-security lab certified to handle dangerous and exotic infectious agents including Ebola, the virus that recently killed more than 5,000 people in western Africa.

Three of six recent security lapses at Rocky Mountain Laboratories involved people entering restricted areas without swiping their own key cards. Instead, the workers entered after colleagues used their key cards to obtain access.

In another case, an animal handler reported seeing an unauthorized man and 15-year-old boy near a primate facility, according to the National Institute of Health Police document obtained by the Bozeman Chronicle.

“She related that she made contact with the man and asked him if he was aware that children were not allowed in that area. The man related ‘Shhhh’ and walked away with the child,” stated the report.

A security officer later found the man next to a street sweeper, with the 15-year-old in the driver’s seat, as they were preparing to leave the facility.

The NIH told the newspaper in a statement it plans to post a report on a recent review of Rocky Mountain Laboratories and other agency facilities.

A local resident who worked at the lab’s neuroimmunology unit in 2011 told the Chronicle that said she was surprised by the reports.

“Sometimes those of us who were working would piggy-back through doors, but our supervisor warned us we could be fired for it. So we always flashed our badge on the scanner even when entering together,” Missoula County Commissioner-elect Nicole Rowley said by email.

“In a pinch, I did loan my badge to a co-worker to go to a different building and grab something,” Rowley added.

She described the high-level bio-containment labs and animal facilities as secure.

“I felt the whole campus was pretty secure while there,” she wrote. “Things must have gone downhill.”

Discipline surrounding safety and security at federal labs generally is good, but the incidents in the police reports are alarming, said Nancy Kingsbury, an expert on biosafety labs who works for the Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C.

“The risk is not zero that someone would find a way into a high containment laboratory, that would arise from some terrorist motive or something like that,” she told the Chronicle.