NBAF opponents gaining strength

Opponents of a controversial Kansas lab designed to study and combat biological diseases have recently found new momentum, as work on the Department of Homeland Security project stalled.

By Laura Ziegler (Manhattan, Kansas).

With funding disputes raging in Congress, the Obama administration revealed earlier this month that it had cut funding for the for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility being built at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

The budget cuts have buoyed opponents of the project, the cost of which is now expected to climb to over $1 billion, and given them extra time to air their grievances.

Planners have already been working on the lab – NBAF, as it is known – for years and many say they fully expect the facility to be completed eventually. Tim Barr, the site manager for DHS in Manhattan, acknowledges that the project contains risks, but says the government will address all concerns.

“We have a lot of really smart folks who put together our recent updated risk assessment and that document will speak for itself when it’s made available to the public,” Barr said.

But opponents who already see the lab as too risky don’t want to wait.

NBAF is designed to study exotic animal diseases like swine flu and the Hendrah virus, which can be fatal to humans. The lab’s opponents fear that any human error would be disastrous. 

The NBAF will be the only facility capable of studying animal diseases like Foot and Mouth Disease on large animals, which presents new and unique problems like where to dispose of diseased carcasses and what to do with contaminated waste.

Members of local activist group Biosecurity in the Heartland have been organizing and gaining strength since DHS awarded Kansas the site. The group is made up of concerned citizens, academics and local professionals.

Retired political science professor Linda Richter said she doesn’t feel Kansas “won” NBAF, as supporters claimed when the site was selected.  DHS and other supporters tried to suppress opposition early on by holding public meetings when no one was on campus and in places inaccessible to many people, Richter said. She’s not surprised that opposition is growing.

“If it had been open and transparent all along and your view didn’t prevail, well that’s the way it happens in a democracy,” Richter said. “On the other hand, if it appears to be slid through, I don’t think [supporters] should be surprised everyone isn’t wildly enthusiastic.”

DHS says there was, in fact, a six-week period during the site selection process during which anyone could register public comments.  More than 3,500 comments about the final five sites came in from around the country. DHS also held another public comment session earlier this month.

Gary Covington, another member of the Heartland Biosecurity group and a third-generation engineer and contractor, said he was worried that DHS omitted important information about the risk of natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods and earthquakes.   

DHS, on the other hand, says it addressed these concerns in its updated risk assessment, now under the review of Congress and the National Academies of Science (NAS).

The updated report is a response to a highly critical review released by NAS in 2010.

The White House, which already allocated $40 million for NBAF, froze $50 million that had been appropriated for this year and eliminated funding in next year’s budget completely.

Funding squabbles have opened a new area of concern for many in Kansas. Bill Dorsett, a retired biologist, worries budget constraints will lead to compromises in the construction of the lab.

“The absolute worst case in this would be a budget germ lab,” Dorsett said. “We don’t need a lab that’s built on the cheap.”

The NBAF has also divided cattlemen across the country. The state’s largest group of ranchers, the Kansas Livestock Association, supports the lab, although it is also waiting for reassurances the facility will be safe.

But the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association, typically a more independent and activist group compared to the KLA, opposes NBAF.

At a recent board meeting of the KCA in Wichita, member Aaron Winter, whose family has been in ranching for decades, said it’s hard to trust DHS.

“I’d like to have some faith that they are doing the best they can,” Winter said. “Are they doing that? I don’t think you can take someone in government that has no idea where (beef) comes from and that he can truly understand what we deal with every day.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said through a staffer this week that NBAF funding will remain on hold until the latest DHS plan is reviewed by the National Academies of Science’s panel of experts.

Then it will be up to policy makers to decide how much risk is acceptable for the new lab.