Nov 29, 2022 - News

Chapel Hill wants to monitor safety of planned labs

Illustration of a beaker wearing a safety vest.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

For years, Chapel Hill has been trying to lure developers to build more lab space in its downtown.

Driving the news: The Chapel Hill Town Council met Monday to consider the creation of a biosafety committee that would monitor the two wet labs planned for downtown.

  • "Our main goals here are that we're not having things in labs that could, if released or an accident happens, could harm people," Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said.

Why it matters: Chapel Hill is trying to make its economy less reliant on student traffic and prevent promising biotech startups from leaving UNC for Durham or Research Triangle Park.

  • Biotech research coming out of universities has been transformative for places like Durham, Research Triangle Park and Cambridge, Massachusetts, turning them into clusters for high-tech startups.
  • But that has also brought lab spaces where companies could be working in biosafety level 3 labs, which study infections agents and toxins, into the densest areas in the region.

What they're saying: "What we need, I think, is an underlying ordinance that says what can and can't be done where and then establishes a mechanism for permitting those uses," Chapel Hill Town Council Member Michael Parker said during the meeting.

  • He noted that places like Cambridge (home to Harvard and MIT) and Durham (Duke and RTP) have established ways of monitoring lab safety.

Already, UNC operates several biosafety level 3 labs, like one that studies and experiments on coronaviruses, on its campus.

  • UNC works closely with the town's emergency department on training and access in case of emergency.

Hemminger stressed that the town needs to be able to communicate to residents what kind of work is happening in the labs.

  • "I don't want someone accusing poisonous fumes of coming out of a building if we know that's not reality," Hemminger said.

What's next: The town expects to take up the topic again in January.

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