Topeka Kansas officials pressed the federal government Friday to move ahead with construction of a new biosecurity lab near Kansas State University, even though a new, independent report suggested that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security still doesn’t have a good assessment of how safely it could operate.
The congressionally mandated report, from the National Research Council, described a favorable Homeland Security assessment in March as seriously flawed. The federal agency had suggested the risk of an accidental release of foot-and-mouth or another dangerous animal disease was minimal.
The $1.14 billion National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would research dangerous animal diseases representing a threat to the nation’s food supply, and backers of the project say it’s vital to national security. Kansas officials also see the lab, with potentially several hundred high-paying jobs, as an engine of economic growth and an anchor for an emerging biosciences industry.
Congress set aside $90 million for DHS to build a new utility plant for the lab and continue work on the site in Manhattan but told the agency it couldn’t spend the money until the National Research Council finished its latest report. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, also Friday, the U.S. senators for Kansas and Missouri said “this final hurdle” had been cleared.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback joined the state’s senators, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, in calling on Napolitano to release the funds. The letter also was signed by Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill. All are Republicans except for McCaskill, but the lab has strong bipartisan support among Kansas officials, who’ve hoped it would be operating by 2018.
And Ron Trewyn, vice president of research at Kansas State University, said the new lab will face permitting and “rigorous” reviews by other federal agencies, so that further pre-construction safety assessments would accomplish little.
“It’s time to build the building,” he said. “It’s time to move forward.”
Kansas officials have worried about resistance in Congress to continued funding for the new lab, which would replace an aging one on Plum Island, N.Y.
U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, a New York Democrat whose district includes Plum Island, said the latest report underscores the concerns that he and others have about “this billion-dollar boondoggle.” He promised to raise the National Research Council report as an issue with Napolitano and in Congress.
“It would be irresponsible to move forward with building this costly and controversial facility without fully understanding the risks associated with it,” Bishop said.
The National Research Council is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonprofit group that advises the federal government. The council’s report Friday was the second time in two years that it had questioned a Homeland Security assessment of the risks associated with the new lab.
In 2010, based on Homeland Security’s own data, the council determined there was a 70 percent chance of an accidental release of a dangerous disease leading to an outbreak outside the lab during the facility’s 50-year lifespan. The DHS assessment in March — based on revised designs — said the risk was about one-tenth of 1 percent.
But the council’s Friday report called the March assessment “technically inadequate in critical respects.”
The council said Homeland Security overestimated the danger posed by tornadoes and earthquakes but underestimated the potential risks of a disease being released by human error. The report’s writers also said DHS failed to consider how multiple safety systems depend upon each other and can fail during a single event.
Gregory Baecher, a University of Maryland engineering professor and chairman of the report-compiling committee, stressed in a telephone conference call with reporters that the review doesn’t assess the safety of the planned biosecurity lab. Instead, it’s designed to tell policymakers whether the information provided by the most recent DHS assessment is reliable.
“We don’t think the analysis has been done well enough that any of these numbers are trustable as the basis for judging risk,” Baecher said. “Decision-makers in Congress or DHS or other places, we believe, still do not have an adequate scientific basis for knowing the risks associated with NBAF.”
But like Kansas officials, DHS spokeswoman Nicole Stickel noted that the report from Baecher’s committee also called the new lab “a critical asset” and said its designs are sound. She said the National Research Council’s findings will be incorporated into the federal agency’s plans.
“These efforts advance the planning for a safe and secure state-of-the-art biocontainment facility,” she said.