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Source: The Kansas City Star

Budget cuts put Kansas biodefense lab on shaky ground

The proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan faces an uncertain future.


Posted: February 14, 2012
Originally Published: February 14, 2012

In Manhattan, Kan., a sign marked the location planned for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University.

The proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility planned for Kansas moved onto the endangered list Monday after the Obama administration’s 2013 budget cut all construction spending for the facility.

Instead, the White House said it will re-examine plans to build the $1 billion project — aimed in part at protecting the nation’s food supply from terrorism — which the government awarded to Manhattan, Kan., after a fierce nationwide competition in 2008.

The Department of Homeland Security wants to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, where scientists study dangerous agriculture-related pathogens such as foot-and-mouth disease.

The government had planned to open the proposed Kansas facility, known as NBAF for short, in 2020. Now that timetable, and perhaps the entire project, is in serious doubt.

“We’re committed to the capabilities a facility like NBAF provides, and the importance of it to our long-term security,” a department official said in an email. But it must be re-evaluated “in the current budget environment, evaluating the cost, safety and capabilities of the current plan.”

Elected officials in Kansas, Republicans all, said they were angry and disappointed with the Democratic administration’s decision to cut the construction funds from the budget blueprint.

“A needless effort to reassess the importance of protecting our nation’s food supply is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said a statement from Gov. Sam Brownback and the state’s congressional delegation. “This change of direction is unacceptable and will leave our country vulnerable.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican freshman, represents the heavily agricultural 1st Congressional District and toured the site Monday. He sharply criticized the White House decision despite his usual outspoken concerns about federal government spending.

“Every delay means an additional time period in which we don’t have the research I believe we need to protect American agriculture,” Huelskamp said. “Food and agri-industry is about 20 percent of our economy … It’s a sound investment to protect food and agriculture.”

Opponents of the facility, however, said the decision not to pay for initial construction in the next fiscal year is a first step toward cancelling the project, which they contend is dangerous and too costly for the cash-strapped government.

“This is an opportunity for a more reasoned and balanced evaluation of what this community has to offer and stands to benefit” from NBAF, said Tom Manney, a retired K-State professor who helps run an opposition group called No NBAF.

He said that includes Manhattan residents and the neighboring livestock producers as well as Kansas State University where the building would be constructed.

“Our major criticism has been that the initial NBAF is not a good fit for this location, with its concentration of livestock operations, limited medical support facilities, and the congested university activities,” Manney said.

The decision not to fund the NBAF project does not kill the project outright. Construction money could be added to the budget in future years or Congress could overrule the president and provide funding on its own.

But the loss of White House support, coupled with budget realities, make significant project spending problematic, at least in the near term.

Last year, the administration recommended spending $150 million to begin construction, only to watch Congress whittle that down to $50 million. The Office of Management and Budget on Monday said $50 million was “insufficient” to begin building the facility.

Instead, the White House budget asked for just $10 million for NBAF, all of it going for animal research at K-State, not for construction. It counted the resulting “savings” of $40 million as part of an overall list of $24 billion in federal budget cuts.

Some Kansas Democrats said project supporters need to keep the tight federal budget in mind.

“Hopefully, this is not the final answer,” said state Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat and member of the governor’s NBAF task force. “Given the constraints that the federal government is now operating under, projects like NBAF are going to be in a real uphill battle. The need for NBAF hasn’t changed at all.”

While the decision to cut construction funds angered some Kansas politicians, it encouraged others.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the budget recommendation was good news.

“The future of this facility is on Plum Island, and even the president realizes moving this would be a big mistake,” Esposito said. “The Plum Island laboratory should stay on Plum Island. We shouldn’t be fixing what isn’t broken.”

Meanwhile, officials in Texas said the White House decision to take another look at the project may prompt the government to reconsider putting the facility in their state. The state mounted an intense bid to build NBAF in the Lone Star state, even filing a lawsuit after Kansas won the competition.

“If they had only withheld funding from the budget for construction, one might conclude that it’s simply a fiscal issue,” said John Kerr, who helped organize the Texas bid for NBAF. “But the part about convening a task force … suggests there may be a continuing concern about the safety issues that have dogged this project.”

Kerr said Texas would consider seeking the project again if Kansas is ruled out by the new study.

The White House isn’t the only organization studying NBAF in central Kansas.

Despite the administration’s apparent backpedaling on NBAF, the independent National Research Council will continue its congressionally-mandated study of the facility’s safety, an NRC spokesman said Monday.

The report, due in June, is the second study of built-in safety mechanisms at NBAF to prevent the accidental release of foot-and-mouth disease and other diseases that will be studied there.

National Research Council scientists earlier had determined, based largely on the federal government’s data, that there was a 70 percent chance of an accidental release of foot-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 have estimated.

Critics have said the facility might not withstand a strong tornado, leading the department last year to “harden” the facility’s design against strong winds.

Kansas has lobbied hard for NBAF. In addition to construction jobs, the state believes the facility would add more than 300 high-paying permanent jobs to the state’s economy.

In December, the state borrowed $45 million to pay for some construction costs on the site, and Congress agreed last year to the $50 million in spending. Huelskamp said that could mean some limited construction could proceed even with the new budget recommendation.

But it isn’t clear if limited construction would be possible without a firm commitment to building the entire project.

Kansas officials believe the facility, if built, will eventually anchor an agricultural research corridor stretching from Manhattan through Kansas City and into Missouri.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.