Topeka — Kansas officials remained confident Monday that a new federal biosecurity lab will be built in their state, despite apparent attempts to delay construction or block funding.
The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would be built at Kansas State University and research livestock diseases and other biological threats. Some critics of the estimated $650 million lab question whether it can safely handle pathogens such as the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease.
Citing such concerns, Montana Sen. Jon Tester amended a budget bill containing $36 million for the lab’s construction before the measure passed the Senate last week. His language requires the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to conduct a safety study before construction funds can be spent.
The House has called for an independent study on whether foot-and-mouth research can be done safely, and its version of the budget bill contained no construction funds.
Aides to Kansas’ two senators said Tester’s amendment wouldn’t block or delay the project because the study can be done before construction is supposed to start.
But Brian Hart, a spokesman for Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, said the state’s congressional delegation still faces a potential problem because the House hasn’t approved construction funds. Brownback, a Republican, hopes to be appointed to the House-Senate conference committee drafting the final version.
“We’re going to have to fight for this,” Hart said. “We’re in good shape, but we still have legislative hurdles to go through, normal legislative hurdles.”
The new lab would replace an aging one on Plum Island, N.Y. DHS officials chose the Kansas State site over locations in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.
Kansas officials expect construction to start in July 2010 and create 1,500 jobs. They anticipate 350 researchers and 150 support personnel will work at the lab, which is supposed to open in 2015.
But officials in the other states have raised concerns about DHS’ selection process, and a Texas coalition has sued. North Carolina Rep. David Price, a Democrat, oversees the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes much of the homeland security spending bill.
Critics have suggested the federal agency didn’t adequately consider the threat posed by a major tornado like one that hit the Kansas State University campus last year. Tester — and some cattle ranchers — have asked about the potential for an accidental release of pathogens.
Tester’s amendment requires DHS to study what’s required to operate the new lab safely and to spell out for Congress how it will conduct foot-and-mouth research and how it will handle emergencies.
“We need to make sure that Homeland Security has taken every precaution before it starts doing research on the biggest potential disease threat to livestock right in the middle of cattle country,” Tester spokesman Patrick Devlin said Monday.
Tom Thornton, chief executive officer of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, said Kansas isn’t resisting such studies. The House is waiting for a report from the Government Accountability Office on the matter, and its release will probably ease concerns, he said.
“I think this thing has moved along just as it should,” Thornton said.
Kansas and DHS officials have expressed confidence that the new lab will be safe. Several Kansans noted Monday that foot-and-mouth research is done at a Canadian lab in Winnipeg — closer to Montana than the Kansas lab will be.