Kansas officials Thursday sought to calm fears raised about a proposal by the Bush administration to build a biosecurity research facility on the U.S. mainland - possibly in Kansas.
Key congressmen and one of the nation's oldest farm groups said putting the proposed $450 million National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in an area near dense concentrations of livestock could be a dangerous move.
Leroy Watson, legislative director of the National Grange, which was founded in 1867, said during testimony before a U.S. House committee that NBAF could become a target for terrorists.
The location of a new laboratory near livestock "would provide an inviting vicinity for the release of FMD (foot-and-mouth disease) by terrorist or criminal elements that would be looking to maximize not only the economic damage : but also the social and political confusion and fallout," Watson said.
Domestic groups opposed to animal research also could target a new lab, he said.
Such research is now confined to the 840-acre Plum Island, N.Y., off the northeastern tip of Long Island. The Department of Homeland Security has spent time and money to announce five finalist sites, including Kansas State University in Manhattan, on the mainland for a new lab. A new facility on Plum Island to replace the current, outmoded lab also remains a possibility.
But Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said plans by Homeland Security were not only "baffling, but dangerous."
"It will be farmers and ranchers who bear the risk" of the world's most infectious animal-only disease, Dingell said. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the panel's investigative subcommittee, said the move "would be a foolish tempting of fate." Both are Michigan Democrats.
But Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr., R-Miss., pointed out that a strong bipartisan majority supports a provision in a major farm bill that would allow the move to the mainland.
Tom Thornton, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, attended the committee hearing.
"The sum for Kansas is that the experts were saying this kind of research can be done on the mainland. The existing facility on Plum Island is insufficient," Thornton said.
Ron Trewyn, vice president of research at K-State, said modern virus containment methods would make the lab safe. He noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works in Atlanta on the most infectious human diseases known.
Kansas officials have made luring NBAF a major priority. They have argued the state is uniquely qualified because of its central location, agricultural base, and its position as home to the nation's largest concentration of animal health companies and public support.
KSU also has said federal researchers could use its new bioscience lab while they are building the larger NBAF. As further enticement, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and legislators approved issuing $105 million in bonds for improvements at the facility site if Kansas is selected.
The other finalist sites for NBAF are Flora, Miss.; Athens, Ga.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio. Homeland Security officials are scheduled to choose a site this fall.
Gary Voogt, president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said his group did not oppose the move.
"Plum Island is not the fortress some people may contend," he said. "The island has long had a problem with wildlife swimming over from the mainland at low tide, and there have been numerous reports of how close boaters can get to the island without any warning or consequences."
Jay Cohen, a homeland undersecretary, said, "I have every reason to believe that the assessments will show that, from a biosecurity and public safety perspective, siting the (new laboratory) on the U.S. mainland is a viable alternative."
The committee wants documents assessing the risk and benefits of locating a new lab on the mainland near animals, and the potential environment impact on each proposed location. Cohen said he would provide all the documents he has, but a draft environmental statement would not be finished until mid-June.