Kansas State University scientists and others who favor building a $1 billion federal animal disease research lab for the Department of Homeland Security faced off Friday with skeptical members of the public.
But opponents appearing before a committee of the National Research Council were easily outnumbered by K-State officials and other proponents of the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility, aimed in part at protecting the nation’s food supply from bioterrorism.
“This will be the safest lab facility probably ever built,” said Landon Fulmer, a policy expert in Gov. Sam Brownback’s office. “We’ll be at greater risk if we don’t build this facility than if we do.”
Rancher Stephen Anderson, however, argued that “jobs, politics and patronage should not supersede ... public safety.” Anderson worried that if the lab is built, animal diseases such as hoof and mouth — long eradicated in the United States — could be accidentally released.
This is the second study by the independent National Research Council. Its scientists earlier had determined, based largely on the federal government’s data, that there was a 70 percent chance of an accidental release of hoof-and-mouth disease from the lab sometime in its projected 50-year lifespan.
Damages to livestock from such an accident could cost billions of dollars, experts estimated.
The research council’s committee, which includes experts on bio-containment technologies, will be reviewing a new updated risk assessment for building the lab in Kansas cattle country.
The committee’s report is due this summer. Congress, which already has spent $30 million to $40 million choosing a site and preparing to build the structure, is withholding further funding until the study is completed.
Committee members asked K-State animal disease experts about the potential for an accidental release of animal diseases and training opportunities for university officials and students. K-State officials said they were confident that the lab would not pose undue risks.
Still, the leader of a loosely knit group that opposes the lab said this week that he sensed the tide may be turning against the project, which K-State officials said could open as early as 2016. A tall metal fence has been erected around the construction site on the K-state campus, not far from the football stadium, with a sign proclaiming “Future Home of NBAF.”
“It sounds from the rhetoric and noise coming from the supporters as though they are very worried,” said Tom Manney, a retired K-State professor, who helps run an opposition group called No NBAF.
But Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who has backed the facility since its inception, remains confident that it will move forward.
“He (Sen. Roberts) does not believe this second review is going to hold up funding from Congress or progress on the construction,” said spokeswoman Sarah Little.
Brownback also continues to strongly back the project, arguing that it is crucial in defending the nation’s food supply from terrorist attacks.
Estimated costs for the lab have more than doubled, from $415 million when it was proposed to more than $1 billion by the time it is operational.
The state has pledged at least $45.5 million in bonds for the project, and possibly millions more if needed. State officials are not sure what the total state funding could be since so many agencies were involved in the lobbying effort to persuade federal officials to build the lab in Kansas.
But opponents such as U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop of New York said last month that it was ludicrous for the government to spend a billion dollars for a new animal disease lab in Kansas when a “perfectly good” facility — the Plum Island Animal Disease Center — already exists off the eastern tip of Long Island.
Bishop, who had previously opposed updating the Plum Island facility, also noted that government’s plans to sell the island to help finance the move to Kansas are more than 18 months behind schedule.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a member of the appropriations and agriculture committees, also questioned the wisdom of putting the lab in cattle country, as does Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who has even suggested reopening the site selection process.
Cattlemen appear to be divided on the issue. But Bill Bullard, director of a cattle producers’ lobbying group called R-CALF, has said that “the U.S. government has simply ignored the vagaries of weather, which could well cause an inadvertent release of some very dangerous viruses.”
The 17-member research council committee includes an expert on wind engineering, apparently to help fully explore concerns about how well the facility would withstand a tornado. Homeland Security officials decided last summer to “harden” the facility to make it resistant to winds as high as 230 mph.
Manney, of the No NBAF group, said this week that more Kansans might oppose the lab if they knew how much state tax money was committed to what many consider to be a federally-financed project.
Documents obtained by The Kansas City Star under the federal Freedom of Information Act show that Manhattan was selected in part because state and local governments pledged tax dollars to help build the project.
Kansas offered what the federal government called “an exceptional in-kind contribution package that completely offsets all the site costs and covers all of the utilities needed to connect with the Central Utility Plant.”
The documents also noted that the state Commerce Department agreed to provide a certain level of forgivable loans and direct grants for each job created at the facility. The exact amounts were redacted by federal officials, but state officials produced documents showing that commitment alone could total up to $2 million.
As a result of such contributions, the federal documents showed that “the Manhattan campus site is among the least expensive locations to construct and operate NBAF.”
A recent audit of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which heavily lobbied the federal government to bring the lab to Manhattan, shed light on additional expenditures. The KBA was created in 2004 by the Legislature to handle $580 million in state funding to foster research in the biosciences.
Among the NBAF-related expenditures incurred by the bioscience authority:
• $250,000 to support a consortium that brought NBAF to Kansas.
• $3.6 million for legal, consulting and other services in support of those efforts. It included more than $440,000 for the Akin Gump law firm to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Texas alleging, in part, that Homeland Security officials gave Kansas an unfair advantage in the competition to win the lab.
In addition to K-State officials, about a dozen members of the public appeared before the committee. Most, including current or retired K-State faculty members, opposed the project.
Among them was Robert Schaeffer, a social science professor who predicted homeowner insurance rates could rise, and Sylvia Beeman, an artist and activist who called the lab “a folly of risk.”