MANHATTAN — Residents and college faculty in northeast Kansas said Friday they were worried health and safety would be threatened if deadly pathogens escaped from a new federal research lab.
They expressed their concerns during a field hearing held by a National Research Council committee that will be reviewing a risk assessment for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility. The $650 million lab would do research on deadly plant and animal pathogens, including foot-and-mouth disease, and critics said during the two-hour meeting that the risks outweighed the benefits of building it near Kansas State University.
“We don’t want to be guinea pigs,” said Sylvia Beeman of the anti-NBAF group Biosecurity for the Heartland.
The Department of Homeland Security hired a private firm last year to conduct a site-specific risk assessment of the planned lab, which would replace an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y.
This is the second risk assessment. One finished in 2010 raised questions that led to further review of the lab and the plans for security measures to protect livestock and humans if pathogens are released.
Greg Baecher, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland serving on the NRC committee, said members expect to receive the final draft of the latest risk assessment in February, review it and release their conclusions this summer.
“This committee is still in the process of deliberation. We’re in the process of information gathering,” Baecher said. “We’re here to listen.”
Torry Dickinson, a university faculty member, said the process of preparing for NBAF hasn’t been open and Kansas State employees have been afraid to speak out about their concerns, among them the effects of an accident and its impact on Manhattan residents living near the campus.
“Many faculty here at Kansas State are concerned that the risks are too high,” Dickinson said.
Kansas State faculty working at the Biosecurity Research Institute were asked about safety procedures in place at the facility, which is already beginning to transition research from New York to Kansas.
Stephen Higgs, research director at the BRI, said depending on the pathogen and experience of the researcher, training can take several weeks or several months before access is granted.
Landon Fulmer, policy director for Gov. Sam Brownback, told the four committee members taking comments, that NBAF was a case of where “politics meets science.”
He described the concerns raised by some in Congress about the safety of conducting research on foot-and-mouth disease or other deadly pathogens as “scare tactics” by those who don’t want the lab built in Kansas.
“If we don’t build NBAF, we put ourselves, our country and our livestock industry at much greater risk than if do build NBAF,” Fulmer said.