We return now to a story we’ve been covering on an ongoing basis: The debate over the billion-dollar animal disease lab under construction – maybe – in Manhattan, Kansas.
Experts say a release of the wildly contagious Foot and Mouth Disease at the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, could cost the livestock industry millions – even billions – of dollars in damages. The NBAF would be the only place in the country capable of studying the virus, which is currently allowed only on Plum Island off the coast of New York.
If you go look at the NBAF site today, you’re going to see a gigantic hole in the ground, much like the hole that’s been there since ground was broken almost a year ago.
But the Department of Homeland Security, which will operate the lab, actually just got title to the land this month. In a meeting of the Manhattan City Commission, the city officially deeded over the 47 acre site – a move supporters hope will breathe new into the beleaguered lab.
Congress has frozen funding at $90 million amidst questions of security...and necessity.
With the fiscal cliff and pressing budget debate distracting Congress, is the NBAF a low priority?
No, says Vice President for Research at Kansas State University, Ron Trewyn.
“Recognizing all these sorts of things, sequestration, fiscal cliff, all those things have the potential to create issues, " he said, "but it’s fairly clear that there is a commitment by DHS to move forward,” Trewyn said.
Trewyn is referring to comments by DHS Secretary Janet Napalitano to Kansas Senator Jerry Moran in a Senate hearing in September.
During the hearing, Secretary Napalitano told the Senator that an NBAF-like lab was, in her words, “critical” to protect the U.S. from emerging and easily-transferrable pathogens. The Secretary 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 NRC affirmed the necessity for a top-security lab to protect the nation’s food supply, it questioned the scale of the NBAF proposal. The NRC report found that the proposed $1.1. billion lab could well be smaller, and that it could well work in tandem with existing labs around the country.
K-State’s Trewyn says that’s not going to happen.
"Since that (report) came out, where they had argued that perhaps a smaller facility would work," he said in an interview, "(it’s been) pretty well confirmed that it would be higher cost trying to redesign than going forward with what's already designed.”
But the controversy over the lab hasn't died down. Opponents – ranchers, scientists, and residents of Manhattan – continue their efforts to stop it.
Gary Conrad is both a resident of Manhattan and a biologist at K-State. Speaking as a citizen, he said, and not on behalf of the university, he begged commissioners at the recent Manhattan City Commission hearing not to transfer the land to DHS. In testimony before the commissioners he 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 was way “too far along” for Manhattan make a difference. Commissioner Wynn Butler, for example, responded to Conrad this way:
“You've got the federal government that says 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 say I just don’t think it’s the city commission’s place to derail this at this point. It still may never get built in the long run but that’s going to depend on Congress. I don’t think we’re going to settle that problem here.”
The state of Kansas has made $105 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 Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran didn’t return phone calls for this story.
Congresswoman 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,” the statement read.
Jenkins and other NBAF supporters point out there’s another reason to believe the NBAF will be built in Manhattan.
They say rstudies going on right now at the Biosecurity Research Institute, a so-called Level 3 lab just adjacent to the NBAF site, will transfer to its Level 4 neighbor. The BRI was a major part of the incentive package Kansas offered DHS in trying to win the NBAF.
As controversy and budgets drag out the progress on the NBAF, the Director of the BRI, Stephen Higgs, believes there is a chance the NBAF won’t be built, but a slim one.
"It might not happen. My prediction is will. There’s a great deal of support for it, and there’s a great need for it," he said.
Higgs also said research will continue at the BRI, whether NBAF comes on line or not.