Agriculture
11:47 am
Mon June 3, 2013

NBAF Breaks Ground In Manhattan

Federal, state, and local officials pitch the first ceremonial shovel of dirt on the federal NBAF facility.
Credit Sherriene Jones Sontag

There was a lot of hand-shaking and back-slapping at the recent groundbreaking for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan. Soon, the first construction will begin on an independent utility plant for the top-security animal disease lab.  

It’s been 4 and a half  years since the Department of Homeland Security awarded the project to Kansas, and it's been a rocky road to this point.

The story of the NBAF today and what Kansas has invested in it.

For a long time, the 46-acre site in a north corner of the Kansas State University campus has been fenced off,  guarded by security,  with an Olympic pool-size hole inside. 

But as controversy over the security and funding for the lab stalled the first phase - construction of an independent power plant - that hole filled up and is now covered with grass.

Officials had reason to celebrate as construction was finally set to begin, and at this week's ceremony, many praised the team effort involved.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, K-State Vice President Ron Trewyn, and Jamie Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security each echoed the excitement from the Kansas Congressional delegation and other state and local leaders.

The project has been held up by congressionally mandated risk assessments,  and evaluations of those assessments to ensure the safety of a lab. Jamie Johnson with the DHS says the project is now shovel-ready.

"Right now we're very confident of our budget and schedule. We've had third party reviews. We've had National Academy of Sciences reviews," he says.

Funding Fears

Some lawmakers in Topeka want to make sure the budget and schedule stay on track because Kansas already has a sizable investment in this project.

As of last month, Kansas has approved $307 million in bonds  for NBAF. The first $105 million has pretty much been used up to clear the ground. 

K-State donated the land, which was previously university animal facilities and worth millions according to local real estate assessments. The state-funded Kansas Bioscience Authority put in $35 million to fund related research at the neighboring Bio-Security Research Institute, and the Department of Commerce has promised $2 million through the Department of Commerce in bio-safety training.

The price tag for Kansas so far is conservatively more than $350 million. That worries Overland Park Republican Senator Jeff Melcher .

"The federal government hasn't even come up with as much as we've already invested in this project," he says.

Melcher voted against the Governor’s end-of-session request for additional bonds.  Once they were approved he was among those who made sure there was an amendment to the bill that held the federal government responsible for any cost overruns and prohibited the state from issuing more bonds for NBAF.

The majority of Kansas  lawmakers believe the NBAF is important,  and ultimately good for the state. The contentious budget debate this session, however,  has made them particularly wary of unjustified costs.

Sen. Jim Denning of Overland Park, is the chair of the Ways and Means Committee. He voted for the supplemental bonds for NBAF. But first he insisted he and his committee have an opportunity to scrutinize the request carefully.

"The request came at the last second," says Denning. "I just don't want a moving target. Once you get committed to something this big, and a cost overun happens, you go back and ask for more money."

Time Frame

The Department of Homeland Security says it expects this phase of construction will take about a year, and they'll start on the actual laboratory in August of 2014.

But federal funds are still in question. The President requested $714 million in next year’s budget for NBAF. The House has shaved that number down significantly, and Congressmen admit the Senate could be a harder sell.

Sen. Pat Roberts acknowledges the tricky funding situation but says the lab will ultimately receive federal funding.

"Oh we'll get it over time," he says. I doubt this session because of the budget situation, and the sequester and all of that.....everyone has designs on that kind of money."

The question now is just what  happens if that money doesn’t come through.