Questions loom over high-security lab in Kansas

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The site designated to become the home of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, is on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. (Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)
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Reporter / KCUR

Laura Ziegler is a reporter at KCUR in Kansas City, Mo.

Part one of an ongoing series.

It has 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.

A site on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kan., beat out almost 30 other proposals for the Department of Homeland Security lab designed to test some of the most exotic and dangerous animal diseases on earth.

Although ground has been broken for NBAF, political and safety concerns have delayed construction of the $650 million facility and the voices of opposition are growing louder.

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.

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, which is wildly contagious and believed to be 100 percent fatal to livestock.

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. A few years after 9/11, Food and Drug Administration assistant director David Atchison said at a bioterrorism conference in Kansas City, Mo., that the country's food supply was still at risk.

Public opinion polls still rate terrorism as a serious concern, but more people today worry about the economy. Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science and communications at UCLA, 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 stripped NBAF funding from the DHS appropriation for fiscal year 2012.

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

“Why on earth would you ask a question like that?," Roberts asked. "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.”

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.

Before there are any more federal appropriations for the project, the National Academy of Sciences is 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 our NBAF page.