Under the Microscope
4:50 pm
Thu January 17, 2013

Limited progress on animal lab site in Kansas

In Manhattan, Kan., the site of National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is still just a huge hole in the ground nearly a year after the initial ground-breaking.

But there has been some progress. In December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which will operate the huge animal disease lab if it is ever completed, got title to the land when the city of Manhattan officially deeded over the 47-acre site. It’s a move that supporters hope will breathe new life into the beleaguered lab.

Congress has frozen funding at $90 million amidst questions of security and necessity. And some question whether the looming fiscal cliff and pressing budget debate are distracting Congress from what may seem like a low priority item.

Ron Trewyn, vice president for research at Kansas State University, said in an interview that the questions “have the potential to create issues,” but that he’s confident “there is a commitment by (the Department of Homeland Security) to move forward.”

Trewyn referred to comments by DHS Secretary Janet Napalitano to Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran in a Senate hearing a few months ago.

During the hearing, Napalitano told Moran that an NBAF-like lab was, in her words, “critical” to protect the U.S. from emerging and easily transferrable pathogens.  In answer to the Moran’s questions, she said DHS would partner with Kansas to get the Level 4 lab built in Manhattan.

The secretary’s statement came just a couple of months after scientists with the National Research Council issued a report that raised significant questions about the lab. While the report affirmed the necessity for a top security lab to protect the nation’s food supply, it questioned the scale of the proposed project. Scientists found that the $1.1. billion lab could be scaled back,  and that it could well work in tandem with existing labs around the country.

But K-State’s Trewyn said subsequent studies indicate altering the current plan isn’t cost- effective.  He said that it had been “pretty much confirmed that (there’s a) higher cost of trying to redesign rather than going forward with what we already designed.”

But the controversy over the lab just seems to escalate. Opponents -- including ranchers, scientists, and residents of Manhattan -- continue their efforts to stop it.

Gary Conrad, a resident of Manhattan and a biologist at K-State, recently begged the Manhattan City Commission not to transfer the land to DHS.  Speaking as a citizen and not on behalf of the university, Contrad said “the approval of NBAF is step by step, and if you gentlemen decide not to approve this step, that would stop it.”

Some members said they shared Conrad’s concerns about security at the lab but believed the project way “too far along” for Manhattan to make a difference. 

Commissioner Wynn Butler said “…you got the federal government saying all the experts claim it will work, in spite of my reservations and yours…and the state government seems to believe it and that’s why I just don’t think it’s the city commission’s place to derail this at this point.  It may never get built in the long run but that’s going to depend on Congress.”

Kansas has made $150 million in bonds available to begin construction of a power plant on the site, but Congress has not been so forthcoming.

Last year’s funding was slashed from $150 million to $50 million, and there is no new federal money in the pipeline right now. Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Moran didn’t return phone calls for this story. U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, whose district would house the NBAF, emailed an upbeat but non-specific statement saying the project will be in good shape once DHS has the land.

 “It is likely that DHS will be able to release the $40 million that was appropriated in FY 2011 along with the matching funds from the state of Kansas to begin the construction on the central utility plant early next year,” her statement read.

Jenkins, others in the Kansas Congressional delegation, and statewide supporters of the NBAF point out there’s another reason to believe NBAF will be built in Manhattan.

They say research already going on now at the Biosecurity Research Institute adjacent to the NBAF site, will transfer to NBAF.  Scientists at the Level 3 lab are studying African and Classical Swine Fever, and Rift Valley Fever.  The BRI building is named after Sen. Roberts, and was a major part of the incentive package Kansas offered to win the NBAF.

As controversy and budgets slow progress on the NBAF project, the director of the BRI, Stephen Higgs said it’s possible NBAF won’t be built.

He also said research will continue at the BRI whether NBAF comes on line or not.

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