Kansas and Missouri senators on Friday urged the Obama administration to spend millions of dollars set aside for a new biohazard lab, despite continuing concerns about its risks.
Their pleas followed the release of a report by a special committee of the National Research Council. The study found that the Department of Homeland Security is still misjudging dangers at the proposed lab — known as the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility — planned for Manhattan, Kan.
The review committee said that Homeland Security used “questionable and inappropriate assumptions” when it calculated the chances of an infectious pathogen release from the lab at less than 1 percent over 50 years.
The committee, made up of scientists and academics, did not find that the lab was unsafe. Instead, it said the latest analysis of the lab’s risk was “inadequate in critical respects.”
But senators from Kansas and Missouri later downplayed those concerns, such as the accidental release of foot-and-mouth disease, calling them important but “academic and theoretical.”
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran of Kansas and Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri urged the administration to release $90 million already appropriated for the project.
“Delays to the timeline only result in increased costs for contracts, labor and materials,” the senators wrote. “More importantly, delays result in an increased risk on our nation’s security.”
The biohazard lab, called NBAF for short, is now estimated to cost more than $1 billion. It would replace a similar but aging facility on Plum Island, New York. Some site work already has started on the K-State campus. Almost all of the costs have been paid for by the state of Kansas.
Opponents have criticized the proposal for years, claiming even a small pathogen release would have devastating, multibillion-dollar consequences for the Midwest’s cattle industry and the nation’s food supply. They said Friday’s committee report underscores just how little the government understands about the potential danger.
“This really questions the credibility of everything we’ve been told,” said Tom Manney with a group called No NBAF in Kansas.
In its first risk assessment in 2010, Homeland Security officials estimated a 70 percent chance of the release of infectious foot-and-mouth diseases from the facility over the first 50 years of its operation. Concerned about that conclusion, Congress ordered department officials to update their risk estimates this year.
In that updated analysis, Homeland Security reduced the release risk to less than 1 percent over 50 years. Congress then asked the special committee to review the department’s revised calculation and it released its findings Friday, concluding the 2012 estimate was better than the 2010 study, but still problematic.
In the 2010 report, for example, Homeland Security said the most likely way pathogens would escape the lab would be through contaminated objects and from employees accidentally breathing in pathogens.
In the 2012 report, however, Homeland Security found that an accidental release from tornadoes or earthquakes is more likely — and since the facility’s design has been hardened, the overall chance of a catastrophic release had been dramatically reduced.
But the review committee said that conclusion was flawed in part because it overestimated the chances of a tornado or earthquake while downplaying the possibility of accidental releases from worker error.
“The committee finds that the extremely low probabilities of release are based on overly optimistic and unsupported estimates of human error rates,” according to the report.
Still the committee found that the basic design of the lab appears to be sound and that there is a “critical” need for a food safety facility.
Homeland Security officials did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, a New York Democrat whose district includes Plum Island, said the latest report shows that the Kansas facility is “unacceptably risky” and should be delayed. In a statement aimed in part at the conservative Kansas congressional delegation, Bishop also called federal spending on the lab an unacceptable “stealth earmark.”
But there were no indications that state lawmakers such as Gov. Sam Brownback were backing away from their support of NBAF, which they have pursued for years.
“The Department of Homeland Security has developed a sound design for NBAF in Manhattan (Kan.),” Brownback said in a statement released by his office.
The House recently approved spending another $75 million for the facility. But the Obama administration has proposed slower spending on the lab, citing safety concerns and the size of the federal deficit.
Meanwhile, a separate committee of the National Research Council is studying the need for an animal research laboratory in the United States and possible scientific alternatives.
Its report is expected later this year.