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Source: The Hutchinson News

White House cuts funding for Kan. lab

Building biosecurity lab scrutinized, but $10M will go to K-State for research.


Posted: February 23, 2012
Originally Published: February 13, 2012

TOPEKA, Kan. - President Barack Obama recommended Monday that no additional funding be allocated for construction of a new biosecurity lab in Kansas and said the Department of Homeland Security will reassess the project's viability.

The proposal, included in Obama's federal spending plan, raised doubts about the future of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan, near Kansas State University. The project would cost an estimated $650 million and would replace an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y. Workers have cleared the Kansas site.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Kansas' congressional delegation - all Republicans - issued a statement saying further review of merits of the facility is needless and "a waste of taxpayer dollars."

"This change of direction is unacceptable and will leave our country vulnerable," the statement said. "Kansas has won every competition, met every standard and proven its commitment to this project, and we'll do whatever it takes to fulfill this critical national security need."

Congress appropriated only $50 million of the $150 million the Obama administration requested for the lab in the current budget year, which the White House said was insufficient to begin construction.

"In light of this, the Administration will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the project in 2012, which will consider the cost, safety and any alternatives to the current plan that would reduce costs and ensure safety," the budget document unveiled Monday states.

Obama is asking the Department of Homeland Security to re-evaluate the project, while spending $10 million to increase the amount of research being done at Kansas State's Biosecurity Research Institute. Brownback and state's congressional delegation took that decision as a vote of confidence in Kansas State's researchers to do the work.

The budget plan also calls for developing a public outreach program to notify surrounding residents and livestock producers about the additional research and safety measures in place to protect humans and animals.

But the proposal appears to be a major blow to Kansas, which saw NBAF as the centerpiece of an emerging biosciences industry. State officials expected the facility to have more than 300 jobs that would pay an average of more than $75,000 a year in salary and benefits.

Officials had hoped to have the facility operating by 2018. But U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, a Democrat who represents the Plum Island site and Long Island, had asked the federal Office of Management and Budget not to recommend funding for it.

Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis said the budget news is disappointing, especially with the project's economic potential.

"Hopefully this not the final answer," said 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."

Members of Kansas' congressional delegation and Brownback have previously expressed confidence that the project would be fully funded, despite opposition from some concerned about the lab's safety, including Bishop and other members of Congress. Brownback has said funding for the lab is the Kansas delegation's top priority.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, who has advocated for keeping the lab at Plum Island, said the recommendation was good news for Long Island.

"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."

A National Academy of Science study on the feasibility of placing the lab in the nation's heartland identified a 70 percent chance that a release of foot-and-mouth disease could occur at the new facility during its projected 50-year lifespan. Damages to the livestock industry could total as much as $50 billion if a release were to occur, officials have said.

The academy is again studying the feasibility of placing the facility in Kansas. A final report is due this summer.

At a field hearing last month in Manhattan, critics of NBAF argued that the risks associated with studying foot-and-mouth disease and other deadly pathogens outweighed any economic benefit to the region. They urged Homeland Security and others to stop work on the project and leave the research on Plum Island.

Sylvia Beeman, a spokeswoman for the anti-NBAF group Biosecurity in the Heartland, called the president's proposal "incredible," adding that she and other critics always have been skeptical of supporters' promises that the new lab would be safe.

"No one has done anything on this scale, which introduces a lot of variables," she said. "There are mechanical failures all the time and human failures all the time."

But Beeman said she is saddened that Manhattan will not be getting an economic boost. She said she and other critics worry about becoming "pariahs" in the community.

"I hope that Manhattan and the university can find some other worthy thing to put their intellect into," she said. "The community has banked on this."

Associated Press writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., and Frank Eltman in Long Island, N.Y., contributed to this report.