Manhattan Research on biological threats could move to Kansas State University before the federal government finishes building a biosecurity lab near the campus, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday.
Speaking during a Manhattan visit, Napolitano tried to dispel concerns about risks to the surrounding community by the planned National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility or by research into animal diseases and other threats.
About two dozen protesters greeted Napolitano outside the university’s Biosecurity Research Institute, which began researching plant and animal diseases last year. State officials used the institute as a selling point in their successful efforts to attract the new $450 million Homeland Security lab, which will replace an aging research center on Plum Island, N.Y.
Construction on the 59-acre site near the existing institute is scheduled to begin in 2010 and take about five years.
During a brief news conference with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Napolitano did not offer details on what research could move to the existing institute or how quickly.
“We have a team from the Department of Homeland Security that’s to be on site here next week, and they are to drill down on some of those types of specifics,” she said.
Sebelius said the federal government could lease or buy the existing institute. The facility could be incorporated into the new government lab or serve as “a transition” until the new lab is finished, she said.
“It was part of our bid from Kansas that that was a decision that should be made by Homeland Security,” Sebelius said. “We have the opportunity here, at least, to be up and running very, very quickly, given the fact that this secure facility already exists.”
The Kansas project has broad support from university and other state officials who expect it to bring 1,500 construction jobs and several hundred permanent, high-paying research jobs.
But some local residents worry that dangerous materials, including livestock foot-and-mouth disease, one of the most virulent viruses known, could be released accidentally by researchers.
Protesters set up a pair of 10-foot signs outside the institute and held up smaller banners and placards during Napolitano’s visit. One showed a dead cow and another said, “Germ release. Not if ... but when.”
On Monday, the Army said it had suspended much of the research at its flagship biological weapons defense lab at Fort Detrick, Md. The Associated Press obtained a memo ordering workers to check refrigerators and freezers for dangerous materials not listed in the fort’s database.
A review of inventory controls at Fort Detrick was prompted by the FBI’s conclusion that a Fort Detrick scientist was responsible for anthrax mailings that killed five people in 2001. The scientist killed himself last year after learning he’d be charged; his attorney maintains his innocence.
Napolitano said she couldn’t comment on Fort Detrick but said safety will be “built into every square inch” of the new lab. She said the existing institute is equally secure.
“In reality, this is the best place in the United States to have this type of a facility because of the expertise in the animal and plant health communities that already exist here in Kansas and in Manhattan in particular,” she said.
Napolitano was scheduled to travel today to the southwestern Kansas community of Greensburg, which continues recovering from a May 2007 tornado that destroyed more than 90 percent of the town.