Planned Kansas Biodefense Laboratory Over the Rainbow?

14 February 2012 2:53 pm

Four years ago, scientists and lawmakers in Kansas rejoiced when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it had chosen Manhattan, Kansas, as the site for a new $650 million federal lab to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the country's premier veterinary research facility off the coast of New York. Now, the project, called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), has been all but cancelled. The president's 2013 budget request includes no funding to build the facility, which so far exists in only architectural drawings and designs. The main reason for scrapping it, officials say, is the crash of the real estate market.

The U.S. government was planning to pay for the new facility by selling off Plum Island, which is federal property. "It's a really nice island with great beaches, a stone's throw from Long Island," says Tara O'Toole, the head of DHS's science and technology directorate. But after the housing crash, Plum Island no longer seemed so plum to potential buyers. And so officials came to the conclusion that selling it was no longer viable within the requisite time frame.

Conceived as biosafety level 4 lab for the study of dreaded animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease, NBAF has been mired in controversy from the beginning. When the U.S. government announced plans to build it several years ago, arguing that the Plum Island center was too old to stay functional, many environmentalists and scientists questioned whether the country really needed an NBAF. In 2008, after Kansas won a competition to host the facility, lawmakers in Texas, which was on the shortlist of candidate sites, accused the federal government of having ignored safety considerations in making its choice. Environmental groups in Kansas protested as well, arguing that bringing NBAF to their state would endanger the state's livestock industry through an accidental or deliberate release of infectious agents.

In 2009, after the Government Accountability Office released a report slamming DHS for having ignored the threat of tornadoes in the region, Congress directed the agency to ask the National Academies to assess the risks of building NBAF at the chosen site. Last year, Congress provided DHS with only $50 million—instead of the requested $150 million—to spend on the project, with the proviso that none of the money be spent on construction.

The 2013 budget request appears to have put NBAF out of its misery, although Congress may choose to reverse the decision. DHS, meanwhile, will go back to the drawing board to evaluate whether a facility like NBAF is a must-have or if there are possible alternatives. "What we are going to do beginning this spring is set up a task force in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and [the Department of] Health and Human Services that will take a comprehensive look at the current threat spectrum from terrorism to foreign invasive species to new zoonotic diseases," she says. "We are going to ask the question, do we need to build a BSL-4 lab to tackle these threats—yes or no? And is there an alternative to doing that?" If the answer is yes, O'Toole says, DHS could make the case to the White House for reinstating the plan in next year's budget.

Politicians in Kansas have signaled that they intend to fight the proposed cancellation. State Governor Sam Brownback and the state's congressional delegation issued a joint statement saying, "A needless effort to reassess the importance of protecting our nation's food supply is a waste of taxpayer dollars. This change in direction is unacceptable and will leave our country vulnerable."

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