This is the first in a three-part report covering the $451 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility proposed by the US Department of Homeland Security. Subsequent articles, which will appear beginning Sept. 2, will describe the NBAF proposal for Georgia and the socioeconomic strategies of the five states that have proposed hosting the biolab.
This article has been updated from a previous version to clarify the fact that the North Carolina Consortium for the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility has not suspended its bid for the facility, but rather an awareness campaign about the project that it had previously sponsored.
And then there were four.
A consortium backing one of five states competing to host a $451 million, 520,000-square-foot federal biological- and agricultural-defense research facility has suspended its advocacy campaign for the project after local officials succumbed to opposition groups, according to statements from its backers and the federal agency proposing it.
The public-private consortium that has advanced the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in the state over the past year announced its retreat from the project earlier this month, though it stopped short of a formal withdrawal.
The consortium, which “continues to evaluate its position,” can still be chosen by the agency overseeing the NBAF project, the US Department of Homeland Security, but its chances have been hurt, the group acknowledged last week.
The about-face follows more than a year of activity by opponents of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, whose safety and quality-of-life concerns have weakened support for the project among local officials.
“There is enough concern now that the local politicians have. Most of them were enthusiastic in their support a year ago. Now they either have become neutral, or have come out against most recently and said they do oppose it, because they feel their questions have not been answered thoroughly” in the Department of Homeland Security’s draft environmental impact statement describing the project, released in June, said Dave Green, a spokesman for the North Carolina Consortium for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.
“They were expecting to see more definitive information related to their concerns,” he added. “From their perspective, the EIS didn’t address the concerns to the degree that they were hoping for.”
Green said his group still believes the NBAF would benefit public health, as well as the US livestock industry and the economy of Granville County, where the project would be located in North Carolina.
Asked if the political backpedaling would hurt North Carolina’s chances of being selected by the DHS, Green replied: “I think it’s fair enough to say so.”
The homeland security department is expected to reach a final decision by the end of the year. Construction is set to start in 2010 and stretch four years.
Green, who is also a spokesman for NC State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, spoke five days after the consortium issued a statement on its web site that it “continues to evaluate its position following renewed expressions of concern” about the project’s draft environmental impact statement.
“The consortium remains concerned by claims from citizens and elected officials that DHS has not adequately addressed their concerns,” according to the three-paragraph statement, issued Aug. 8 by Warwick Arden, dean of NC State’s CVM. “NCC-NBAF continues to urge DHS to address community concerns and the consortium will closely monitor the relationship between DHS and the constituent communities. The views of local citizens and guidance of elected officials will determine whether North Carolina will proceed with its bid.”
Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa insisted to BRN last week that the agency has not ruled out North Carolina as the site of the biolab, but stressed that opposition to NBAF has not gone unnoticed by DHS.
“In the ideal situation, we want to be somewhere where we’re wanted,” Kudwa said. “And so public support, and local elected official support is something that is important to the considerations as they’re ongoing.”
Kudwa added that DHS will consider community acceptance as it makes its decision. Other criteria include proximity to existing research capabilities, proximity to a workforce, and feasibility of site acquisition, construction, and operations.
She added that DHS will not give extra weight to local acceptance or opposition, instead evaluating the proposal of each state individually.
North Carolina is among five states whose proposals to host the biolab remain under DHS consideration. The other four states are Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, and Texas. DHS is also weighing a sixth option, retaining the existing Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.
An official familiar with DHS thinking, who spoke to BRN on condition of anonymity and was not authorized to discuss the review process publicly, said the agency anticipated opposition to its plan when it expanded to five from three the number of states on its short list for the NBAF sites. That way, the official said, homeland security could choose between several good proposals rather than be limited to choosing one state by default.
“As a matter of prudence, we thought it was probably better to expand that list a little bit, because we might have a couple of sites that de-select themselves,” the official said.
‘We Need This Facility’
The NBAF would consist of 500,000 to 520,000 square feet housed in two laboratory buildings and four outbuildings. One building would serve as the primary research facility containing biosafety laboratories rated 2, 3E, 3A, and the highest rating of 4, plus support spaces. The second building would serve as a laboratory for small-scale vaccine and reagent production.
DHS and the US Department of Agriculture have contended they need the biolab because Plum Island, which was built in the 1950s, is too small and increasingly too outdated to carry out the volume and quantity of testing needed to protect the nation’s $1 trillion agricultural industry from the potentially catastrophic results of a bioterror attack on livestock.
“To expand and grow our research capabilities into the 21st century, and to have the diagnostic capability that we need to have in the US in order to protect agriculture, we need this facility,” Kudwa said.
In North Carolina, the biolab would rise within 195 undeveloped acres at the Granville County portion of the 4,035-acre North Carolina Department of Agriculture Umstead Research Farm in Butner.
“They couldn’t have picked a worse location for the project. The factor of risk is just too high. The people here don’t want it at all.”
Among the selling points promoted by biolab supporters are the project’s location about a 20-minute drive northwest of Raleigh and Research Triangle Park, and a slightly longer drive to the Triad region anchored by the cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point.
Those arguments persuaded officials in Butner, its county of Granville, and several surrounding counties to pass resolutions endorsing NBAF last year.
Over the past few months, however, the county commissions of Granville and Durham, the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Creedmoor, the town of Stem, state Sen. Doug Berger (D-Franklin County), and US Rep. Brad Miller (D-Raleigh) have joined the opposition to NBAF — in some cases after reversing previous support for the project. Durham’s board of commissioners was among the most recent to join the anti-biolab effort, voting 4-1 on Aug. 11 to oppose the project. The board has not previously voted on the project.
Another vote of no confidence in NBAF came late last month, when the state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center rejected a $262,248 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation toward promoting the project, in part through advertisements and public speakers.
“Taken as a whole, the proposed agreement vests Golden Leaf with such involvement and decision making power over the details of the project that it ceases to be a grant supporting independent, objective work and analysis,’ Norris tolson, the biotech center’s president and CEO, said in a July 29 letter to Golden Leaf President Valeria Lee.
The reversals have been welcomed by the Granville Nonviolent Action Team, also known as GNAT, which reactivated itself last September to lead the opposition to NBAF’s North Carolina proposal.
GNAT member Ron Howell, a senior reliability engineer and architect, told BRN last week his group of “several hundred” members had met directly with elected officials over several months urging them to oppose the biolab.
“We talked directly with them, and we had very good conversations with many of them,” Howell said in an interview. “It turned out they were looking at just the dollars up front. They changed their own minds, for the most part, when they saw the risk. They saw what it could do, measured in billions of dollars, if even a small event happened here.”
Smaller communities, he said, shared concerns that their public safety budgets would have to increase to prepare for any incidents at the biolab.
GNAT backed up those requests with some people-power, namely hundreds of angry residents the group turned out to attend public hearings on NBAF, and some publicly reported promises by members to get themselves arrested should construction ever begin on the project.
GNAT and other opponents have contended the biolab should not be built at the Umstead Research Farm, a former US Army testing range, because of the potential risk for an escape of pathogens into the surrounding community, as well as into the watershed encompassing the Neuse River basin, Holt Lake, and Falls Lake, which serves Butner and communities stretching into the city of Raleigh.
In addition, the site is bounded on one side by the C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center, and near several residential state and federal facilities reported to have more than 7,000 residents. Among those numbers are those living at the state-run Umstead Correctional Center, a minimum security facility; a National Guard outpost; and a state-run psychiatric facility, John Umstead Hospital.
“They couldn’t have picked a worse location for the project. The factor of risk is just too high,” Howell said. “The people here don’t want it at all. The politicians are now against it. Everyone’s coming out against it. It’s an incredibly dangerous laboratory, and they know that now. A little education goes a long way. That lab is going to have issues and failures. Are you willing to bet your life on it?”
Before retreating this month, the North Carolina consortium argued that the biolab would not harm the local watershed because the site lay outside of 100- and 500-year flood zones, and is not prone to earthquakes or other geologic events.
“Natural disasters, then, pose little risk to the facility’s operations,” the consortium stated on its web site. “All waste from the lab will be pretreated and decontaminated, just as has been done successfully with CDC in Atlanta for many decades.”
Howell, like many other biolab opponents, has cited arguments questioning the merit of any NBAF proposal, not just the one in North Carolina. He faulted the absence of detailed design drawings for the facility in the DEIS, contending it was one key reason why his group considers the draft environmental report incomplete.
Jay Cohen, the DHS undersecretary who oversees its Science & Technology Directorate, testified to Congress last April that work is planned for federal fiscal year 2009, which starts Oct. 1, using part of the $146.9 million in funding sought by DHS.
The following month a report by the US General Accountability Office questioned whether one particular research area the biolab is designed to help address, namely foot-and-mouth disease, can be safely researched on the US mainland instead of at an island facility like Plum Island.
NBAF opponents say a mainland lab would increase the chances of the disease spreading to livestock, and cite the absence of any such outbreak since 1929 under the island-based research policy. In testimony to Congress in May, not posted on DHS’ website but quoted identically in numerous news outlets, Cohen said that a risk indeed exists. “While there is always a risk of human error ... the redundancies built into modern research laboratory designs and the latest biosecurity and containment systems ... effectively minimizes these risks."
At a May 22 hearing of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the testimony by Cohen, a retired US Navy rear admiral, drew fire from the Michigan Democrat who chairs the panel, John Dingell, as well as from GAO representatives, who said DHS based its NBAF policy on a flawed 2002 study.
“The DHS proposal to move live foot-and-mouth virus to the mainland without fully exploring the dangers is utterly baffling,” Dingell said in a statement issued by his office the day of the hearing.
Kudwa, the DHS spokesperson, insisted the agency’s consultants could build the biolab and operate it without harm to human or animal health. “Safety is absolutely paramount as we undertake this project,” she said.
James Lumpkins, the chairman of Granville County‘s Board of Commissioners, told BRN last week that DHS had dragged its feet on answering county officials’ specific questions about the proposed biolab, prompting his board to withdraw its support from the project.
Lumpkins said the board had many of the same concerns about the effects of an escape of pathogens from NBAF as GNAT expressed.
“We pleaded with homeland security for days and weeks and months to come and answer the questions that the people had. They refused to do that for along, long time. They procrastinated until the whole situation got into turmoil, and I guess that’s what it’s in right now,” Lumpkin said in an interview.
By the time DHS reversed itself and returned to Granville County, Lumpkins said, “very few people felt at ease to even go up and support it at the podium. I don’t think in good conscience that [supporters] wanted to get involved in the project. It doesn’t really make any difference in my opinion what Homeland Security says now. [Opponents] aren’t going to back off. They’re not going to be convinced.
“I have very mixed feelings about the situation,” he added.
Kudwa said her agency attempted to address Granville County’s responsiveness concerns, as it has similar concerns in Georgia, in part by holding three public hearings on the DEIS instead of the two required by the National Environmental Policy Act. In addition to the required hearings on DEIS areas of study or “scoping,” and on the report itself, DHS offered to host a second hearing in all five communities under consideration.
“Not every community took us up on the offer,” though North Carolina and Georgia did, she said.
Granville County’s backing away from the biolab, Lumpkin said, should not be interpreted as a sign of support for GNAT, whose opposition effort he said only served to divide residents as no other local issue has done in recent memory. He said only 200 residents came out to oppose the project at public meetings, in a county of 59,000 residents — a number in synch with the 200 protestors reported in local news accounts of the final DHS hearing in Butner, held July 29.
“This will come and go, and people are supposed to stay and work together, live together, worship together, pray together, what-have-you,” Lumpkins said. “But this issue has brought on some hard feelings that will never be mended.”