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Gov’t Postpones Hearing Slated to Review How DHS Chose Ag-Bio-Defense Facility Site

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This is an updated version of a report that first appeared in BRN on July 28.

By Alex Philippidis

The mark-up of a healthcare reform bill by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee led one of its subcommittees to postpone a hearing scheduled for Thursday that was to review decisions made by the US Department of Homeland Security that led to the decision to site the $523 million National Bio- and Agro- Defense Facility being in Kansas.

The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has postponed the meeting indefinitely after its chairman, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee, Mich.), joined Energy and Commerce colleagues at the mark-up meeting. The House will recess for all of August after tomorrow. The NBAF hearing has yet to be rescheduled, but will take place when representatives return to Capitol Hill after Labor Day, a committee staffer told BioRegion News.

At the scheduled hearing, Nancy Kingsbury, managing director of applied research and methods at the US Government Accountability Office, was to have testified that the US Department of Homeland Security erred in December when it chose Kansas over Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina; the existing facility in Plum Island, NY, deemed too costly to modernize, was ruled out.

Kingsbury was to present that and other GAO findings from a report prepared by her agency. A draft version of that report was leaked to the Washington Post, which summed up the report's arguments in Monday's edition.

The Post also obtained internal correspondence in which DHS sought to stop the public airing of the draft report's findings at the hearing, arguing that they were unfair to the agency.

In its draft report, GAO contended that the Kansas site was more vulnerable to tornadoes than other sites under review; that Kansas' Heartland BioAgro Consortium — the group of government and industry leaders that persuaded DHS to award NBAF to the Sunflower State — had close access to homeland security officials; and that DHS' assessment of the risk of accentual release of toxins was not representative of the true risk, and based on outdated methods.

Some of those arguments echo those made by Texas in a lawsuit seeking to stop the project, a suit that was dismissed earlier this month on a legal issue and "without prejudice," allowing for possible future refilling.

"We view the GAO report as a positive development. It is unclear whether it will have any effect on when we can re-file the lawsuit. It will be important to see what happens in Congress over the next few weeks," Guiffre told BRN this week.

A conference committee of members from the House and Senate will hammer out a compromise budget for DHS that will resolve how much funding the agency is to receive toward construction of NBAF. The Senate has approved all $36.3 million sought by DHS to build the NBAF project on the Manhattan, Kan., campus of Kansas State University, immediately adjacent to the Biosecurity Research Institute, with conditions intended to enhance area safety.

The House approved no funding for NBAF construction, pending an additional $5 million "risk assessment prepared by a person who is not an officer or employee of the Department of Homeland Security of whether foot-and-mouth disease work can be done safely on the United States mainland"

Kansas responded to the draft report leak through statements and news interviews in which it joined DHS in rejecting the GAO's arguments, contending that the NBAF's environmental review was correct to place the greater risk of tornado activity in Texas; that the risk assessment review was proper; and that the site selection process was so fair that Texas was rejected despite its being the home state of then-president George W. Bush when the homeland security agency made its decision in December.

Tom Thornton, president and CEO of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which led Kansas’ NBAF effort, told BRN that modern biocontainment methods have advanced so far from when Plum Island opened a half-century ago that the containing of viruses known to be harmful to animals can be carried out in settings other than islands, an argument made by DHS in its environmental review of NBAF.

"The risk assessment done by DHS is the standard way to account for [a foot-and-mouth disease] release. It was validated by the [US] Department of Agriculture. It was peer-reviewed by Johns Hopkins [University's applied physics laboratory] and peer-reviewed by Lawrence Livermore. The GAO is contending this is the wrong way to account for FMD release without offering any recommendation of another way to do it," Thornton said in an interview. "The GAO report, taken to its logical extent, would essentially forbid the very kind of research that is currently taking place at the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] in Atlanta."

While GAO is not commenting on the report, since it has not yet been made public, the leaked draft contended that DHS relied on unrepresentative accident scenarios," as well as "outdated" modeling and "inadequate" information about the site, the Post said, quoting from the report. GAO cited the UK's 2001 FMD outbreak by noting it came from a non-island lab south of London, and poked a hole in a DHS argument that non-island labs can effectively prevent FMD releases.

While homeland security cited a Canadian lab as being effective, GAO said the NBAF would process 10 times as many animals using methods less sophisticated than those of the lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the newspaper reported.

DHS was to have been represented at the postponed hearing by Bradley Buswell, the agency's acting undersecretary for science and technology.

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