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Questions Loom For Future Of High-Security Lab At K-State

It’s been three years since the Department of Homeland Security chose Kansas as the site of its National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, but there’s a growing sense that the project has a precarious future.

The proposed site is on the Kansas State campus, in Manhattan, right next to the university’s current flagship research lab, the Biosecurity Research Center. The BRI, as it’s called, is in a building known as Pat Roberts Hall – as in Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, one of NBAF’s most active proponents.

The Manhattan site beat out almost 30 others for the new lab, where researchers will test some of the most exotic and dangerous animal diseases in the world. The lab was proposed shortly after 9/11 as essential to protecting our nation’s food supply.

The DHS has broken ground for NBAF, but as the voice of the opposition grows louder, so do questions about whether it will be built in Manhattan at all.

In part one of an ongoing series, KCUR’s Laura Ziegler reports for Harvest Public Media and considers why the questions about NBAF are coming now and whether they could jeopardize the facility’s future in Kansas.

Not Just Any Bio-Defense Lab

The proposed NBAF isn’t just any animal lab. This lab would be 500,000 square feet, larger than the combined areas of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the U.S. Army’s main bio-defense research lab in Fort Detrick, Md.

The lab would also be expensive. Initially priced at $415 million, the cost has risen steadily, and by October 2011, an undersecretary for DHS testified before Congress that the cost would be more than a billion dollars by the time the project is finished.

From Plum Island To Ground Zero

Before the money gets spent, however, the high-security lab has some hurdles to overcome. The creepy Cold War legacy of its predecessor, Plum Island, for one, which was once dubbed “the government’s real live island of horror…a secret bio warfare lab a stone’s throw from NYC and Boston.”

The scenic location of Plum Island, off the coast of Long Island, is the only place in the U.S. to have studied incurable germs like Foot and Mouth Disease.  It is wildly contagious and would cause economic damages estimated in the billions if it were released.

After the 9/11 attacks, the newly created Department of Homeland Security said that Plum Island was too old and decaying to protect U.S. agriculture from a terrorist threat. Food and Drug Administration assistant director David Atchison said at a bioterrorism conference in Kansas City, a few years after 9/11, that the country's food supply was still at risk.

Public Opinion Shifts

Public opinion polls still rate terrorism as a serious concern, but more people today worry about the economy. UCLA political science and communications Professor Lynn Vavreck says the net effect of that shift in focus could mean dwindling support for NBAF.

Nearly 40 percent of Americans told us that the U.S. “has just been lucky” to have avoided a large-scale bioterror attack, Vavreck said. “Another 40 percent said they think it’s because the government is doing a good job. Either way, that’s 80 percent of the people who might think a new facility is not needed.”

Given a waning fear of agro-terrorism and heightened concern about the economy, some are wondering if the NBAF is such a great idea.

Outbreak Concerns Increase Opposition

A formerly sleepy local opposition has gained traction with support from a national cattlemen’s association and a damning report by an objective panel of scientists. Last November the National Academy of Sciences said it was highly likely there would be a release of Foot and Mouth Disease during the proposed facility’s lifetime.

An audit of the Kansas Bioscience Authority released this week leaves unanswered questions about the use of state funds to lobby for the NBAF.

And after granting $40 million last year, Congress reduced funding in fiscal year 2012 from $150 million to $50 million to be withheld until the National Academy of Sciences submits a safety and security review.

At a press conference last summer announcing a new NBAF steering committee, Sen. Roberts bristled when asked if the project was in danger.

“No. Why on earth would you ask a question like that? This was selected by the criteria set up by the DHS. We won it…we’ve spent over 200 and some million bucks. This project is not dead, don’t say that,” Roberts responded.

The site in Manhattan is a field of dirt at this point, thanks to $40 million of federal funding and millions more from Kansas taxpayers.

The National Academy of Sciences is currently updating its security evaluation. Officials will meet in Manhattan Friday to gather public comments for a report expected to be released in June.

Meanwhile, the NAS has said planning for the lab is on hold while they’re in the process of reassessing – a process that’s taking a lot longer than many expected.

For more NBAF coverage, visit KCUR's NBAF page.

Correction: Originally this story stated that Congress has stripped NBAF funding from the DHS appropriation for fiscal year 2012, while in fact Congress reduced the funding amount. The remaining funding is on hold until the NAS submits an updated review of safety and security plans. The story has been updated to reflect the correction.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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