Topeka Kansas officials said Tuesday that they hope ongoing construction and design of a new biodefense lab will not be derailed by politics.
A report released Monday by the National Research Council raised several questions about plans to build the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan.
Kansas officials say Tuesday that the research mission for NBAF is too important for it to become a political fight in Congress.
“This research mission is too important for politics, and we know there is strong, bipartisan support for it,” said Tom Thornton, president and CEO of the Kansas Biosciences Authority.
Congress ordered the review before releasing additional funds for construction of the $451 million complex. The land is owned by the Kansas Board of Regents, who have been negotiating with the DHS to transfer the parcel next to the Kansas State University campus.
Thornton said the Kansas bid to land the project won over other states was based on its merits, not politics, including the expertise in animal science at Kansas State. The new lab will be built near Kansas State’s Biosecurity Research Institute on the north end of campus near the football stadium.
The report emphasized safety concerns, including the risk that animal pathogens could be released close to urban populations and a a large cattle supply. Using figures cited by the DHS in it’s site specific risk assessment, the review group calculated the risk of a release of a pathogen such as foot-and-mouth disease as 70 percent over the 50-year life of the project.
Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson said the completion of the review with the design little more than one-third complete would ensure safety concerns were addressed, knowing critics will be looking for potential flaws.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that report will be used by folks who are opposed to the project to keep it from being built,” Parkinson said.
Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, said the report validated concerns raised by his House oversight subcommittee in May 2008 that the research should remain at the aging laboratory at Plum Island, N.Y. He said the review indicated that the DHS hadn’t fully evaluated the risks of conducting research on the pathogens when it made it’s decision.
“The Department of Homeland Security’s findings on NBAF need to be re-examined,” Stupak said. “But with time on the legislative calendar running out, this issue may have to be addressed by the next Congress.”
But keeping the research center on Plum Island, which is off of the eastern tip of New York’s Long Island, would have its own problems, not least of which the cost of upgrading the facility.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office told Congress that upgrading the Plum Island facility would cost up to 40 percent more than building a new site elsewhere. The GAO also voiced concern about carrying on such sensitive research in the densely populated area surrounding New York City, citing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
DHS Undersecretary Tara O’Toole said Tuesday that the agency would work with Congress the research council and other federal agencies to incorporate all safety and security concerns into the NBAF design, calling the review “an important first step.”
“The country must have a modern research facility where we can create the means of preventing and if necessary treating such diseases,” she said.
Alfonso Torres, a member of the Cornell University and expert in biocontainment laboratories, said the risks identified by the DHS assessment can be mitigated with proper design, construction and training to handle the pathogens.
“There is no scientific reason to have these types of facilities on an offshore location,” Torres said.
Democrat Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the council’s findings would be considered as construction begins, saying “it is impossible to predict a biological hazard breach of a facility that has not even been built yet.”
The five Republicans and one Democrat in the Kansas delegation issued a joint statement urging the process to continue.
“We are pleased that it confirms the importance of building a new NBAF to protect our nation,” they wrote, adding that they had concerns that the finding didn’t consider mitigation and safety plans the DHS is developing.
Kansas Board of Regents President and CEO Andy Tompkins said the review was “part of the process” and didn’t anticipate further delays in the land transfer or scheduled start of construction next year. The facility is expected to be certified and operational by 2018.
But Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the New York-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the review’s concerns about tornadoes and the rapid detection of released pathogens painted a “truly frightening picture.”
“The gaps suggest a dangerously casual attitude about relocating this facility that cannot and should not be tolerated,” she said.