Topeka Kansas officials were stunned and upset Monday to learn that President Barack Obama recommended no additional funding for construction of a new biosecurity lab, jeopardizing a high-visibility project that the state had seen as a powerful engine of economic growth.
The spending plan from Obama also said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will reassess the viability of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility planned for Manhattan, near Kansas State University. The project would cost an estimated $650 million and would replace an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y.
Workers have already cleared the Kansas site, and the state has committed itself to authorizing up to $105 million in bonds to help with the project. State officials envisioned the lab, which would research foot-and-mouth and other dangerous animal diseases, as a key part of an emerging biosciences industry.
Gov. Sam Brownback and Kansas’ congressional delegation — all Republicans — issued a statement saying further review of merits of the facility is needless and “a waste of taxpayer dollars.” The officials promised to work to overcome the recommendation from Obama, a Democrat, and said doing so will protect the security of the nation’s food supply.
“This change of direction is unacceptable and will leave our country vulnerable,” the statement said. “Kansas has won every competition, met every standard and proven its commitment to this project, and we’ll do whatever it takes to fulfill this critical national security need.”
Congress appropriated only $50 million of the $150 million the Obama administration requested for the lab in the current budget year, which the White House said was insufficient to begin construction.
“In light of this, the Administration will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the project in 2012, which will consider the cost, safety and any alternatives to the current plan that would reduce costs and ensure safety,” the budget document unveiled Monday states.
Obama is asking the Department of Homeland Security to re-evaluate the project, while spending $10 million to increase the amount of research being done at Kansas State’s Biosecurity Research Institute. Brownback and state’s congressional delegation took that decision as a vote of confidence in Kansas State’s researchers to do the work.
The budget plan also calls for developing a public outreach program to notify surrounding residents and livestock producers about the additional research and safety measures in place to protect humans and animals.
But the proposal still is a major blow to Kansas, which expected the new lab to have more than 300 jobs paying an average of more than $75,000 a year in salary and benefits.
“Hopefully this not the final answer,” said Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat and member of the governor’s NBAF task force. “Given the constraints that the federal government is now operating under, projects like NBAF are going to be in a real uphill battle. The need for NBAF hasn’t changed at all.”
Officials had hoped to have the facility operating by 2018. But U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, a Democrat who represents the Plum Island site and Long Island, had asked the federal Office of Management and Budget not to recommend funding for it.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer said the federal government should continue investing in research at Plum Island, and fellow New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said its sale should be delayed because it remains a “critical national asset.” Both, like Bishop, are Democrats.
“I will be stunned if the Kansas delegation does not try to resurrect this issue,” Bishop told The Associated Press in an interview.
He added about Plum Island, “It is a good facility that is not obsolete and does not need to be replaced.”
Members of Kansas’ congressional delegation and Brownback have previously expressed confidence that the project would be fully funded, despite opposition from some concerned about the lab’s safety, including Bishop and other members of Congress.
A National Academy of Science study on the feasibility of placing the lab in the nation’s heartland identified a 70 percent chance that a release of foot-and-mouth disease could occur at the new facility during its projected 50-year lifespan. Damages to the livestock industry could total as much as $50 billion if a release were to occur, officials have said.
The academy is again studying the feasibility of placing the facility in Kansas. A final report is due this summer.
At a field hearing last month in Manhattan, critics of NBAF argued that the risks associated with studying foot-and-mouth disease and other deadly pathogens outweighed any economic benefit to the region. They urged Homeland Security and others to stop work on the project and leave the research on Plum Island.
“No one has done anything on this scale, which introduces a lot of variables,” said Sylvia Beeman, a Manhattan resident and spokeswoman for the anti-NBAF group Biosecurity in the Heartland. “There are mechanical failures all the time and human failures all the time.”
But Beeman said she is saddened that Manhattan will not be getting an economic boost. She said she and other critics worry about becoming “pariahs” in the community.
“I hope that Manhattan and the university can find some other worthy thing to put their intellect into,” she said. “The community has banked on this.”