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Opponents Take Aim at Georgia’s Bid To House DHS Ag-Bio Defense Facility

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[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part report covering the $451 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility proposed by the US Department of Homeland Security. The third installment will describe the socioeconomic strategies of the five states that have proposed hosting the biolab.]
 
Georgia’s bid to house the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility has sparked organized opposition from hundreds of local residents who have clashed with the US Department of Homeland Security on whether the benefits of the $451 million federal biolab outweigh its potential risks.
 
Georgia’s predicament resembles that of North Carolina [BRN, Aug. 18]. But unlike the Tar Heel State, where NBAF foes pushed local governments to either oppose the project or reverse earlier support for it, a long list of Georgia’s academic, business and political leaders have maintained steadfast support for it despite steady criticism from groups and individuals.
 
“This is a unique opportunity for not only the state, but for the federal government. … What this has done is really given us an opportunity to help the federal government in something that is of national security interest,” said Pat Wilson, director of government affairs for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican serving his second term.
 
Wilson spoke Aug. 14 in Athens at the final hearing on a draft environmental impact statement prepared by consultants to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is considering bids from Georgia and four other states — Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas — for NBAF, as well as a sixth option, retaining and renovating the existing Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.
 
The DEIS concluded the biolab could be operated safely, and would generate 483 permanent jobs — 326 at the facility, the rest indirect jobs. Opponents have played up the DEIS’ lower job- and economic-activity estimates than DHS first offered, and Georgia NBAF supporters cited, when the project was first announced two years ago — 500 direct jobs.
 
Georgia supporters initially estimated the project would generate between $3 billion and $6 billion in activity, based on DHS’ early job number. As DHS scaled down that number — the result, it said, of more detailed planning — the University of Georgia directed its Carl Vinson Institute of Government to revise the estimate of economic impact, to the current range of $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion. That activity would include additional UGA research, and an additional, as-yet-unquantified amount of federal dollars to fund it.
 
In Georgia, at least, NBAF would lead to development of at least one additional bio project at the university.
 
David Lee, UGA’s vice president for research, told BioRegion News recently that if DHS locates NBAF in Georgia, the state has promised in return to build an interdisciplinary infectious disease research center for the university on its campus near the proposed biolab.
 
“We think of it as an interface building that would showcase our infectious disease efforts. As we recruited more faculty, the idea is that it would be a portal to NBAF,” Lee said in an interview.
 
The size of that facility has yet to be determined, Lee said, adding that “it will be a research building of a meaningful size.”
 
UGA is a key member of the Georgia Consortium for Health and Agro-Security, a public-private group led by Perdue, a veterinarian who earned his DVM degree from the university before entering politics. The consortium is trying to persuade DHS to choose Georgia over the four other biolab contender states.
 
Whichever state is chosen, 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 outdated to carry out the volume of testing needed to protect the nation’s $1 trillion agricultural industry from the potentially catastrophic results of a bioterror attack on livestock.
 
Georgia’s bid for NBAF would have the state Board of Regents donate to DHS 67 acres of UGA land just outside the city in Athens-Clarke County, then build the biolab and operate it with staff and scientists from the USDA. The project would rise on the southern end of the campus used as an extended animal farm for the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. The site is a horse pasture located behind UGA’s Livestock Instructional Arena.
 
Lee said NBAF would deepen the research ties between UGA and USDA, which operates a facility about two miles east of the university campus on College Station Road — the Agricultural Research Service — Southeast Poultry Research Lab, a key facility in researching avian influenza.
 
UGA faculty and students also carry out research now at Plum Island. One investigator, Danny Mead, is a DVM faculty member who works with the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study to study the spread of animal-to-animal and animal-to-human “zoonotic” diseases, especially vesicular stomatitis, which has many of the same symptoms as foot-and-mouth disease.
 
“[NBAF] will certainly provide much needed space so we can continue to build excellence in this very important infectious disease and global health area. If this facility is built at the end of our campus, we expect we’ll see a lot more collaboration,” Lee said.
 
The benefits of NBAF coming to Athens, Lee continued, go beyond more collaborations, and research dollars, for UGA.
 
“We believe that a very positive signal will go out to the rest of the nation saying to companies and other entities, that the Atlanta-Athens area is a great place to look if you are looking to select a new home for your growing enterprise. We believe the facility will be a magnet for companies that are interested in animal health,” he added. “We’d like to see some recruitment of some bigger household names in biopharma and biotech. Were we to win NBAF, it would certainly accelerate our efforts and perhaps increase their success rate.”
 
The Athens area has mostly early-stage life-sci companies. The largest is the UK-based livestock and animal vaccine maker Merial, which has a research facility in Athens, some eight miles northeast of the NBAF site, and its US headquarters some 50 miles further west in Duluth, Ga.
 
The proposed biolab would be a major step toward the goal announced last year by the Georgia Research Alliance, a public-private coalition of businesses, universities, and state government — namely, focusing the state’s life sciences effort on the development of vaccines and therapeutics.
 
“In this rapidly evolving field of medicine, Georgia is at the intersection of capability and opportunity. Now, we must capitalize on our position and become a global leaderin vaccine and drug development. We can do that by working together to reach the goals in GRA’s Next-Generation Vaccines and Therapeutics Initiative,” the alliance concluded in a report, available here, which followed a study of Georgia’s life sciences effort by McKinsey & Co. and Battelle Memorial Institute.
 

“We will use all legal means to keep NBAF away from Athens.”

Another advantage to siting NBAF in the Athens area, say Lee and other supporters of NBAF: The biolab would rise within a half-hour drive of UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Health Research Center, which like NBAF is designed to study infectious diseases in large host animals such as cattle and horses. AHRC has biosafety level 3 labs, but no current university facilities have BSL-4 labs equipped to study the deadliest pathogens. The NBAF project would also be near Athens Technical College; and the Athens Perimeter Highway.
 
“The important work that this lab will do will contribute to the ongoing efforts at UGA to protect livestock and people,” said Mike Lacey, a professor in the university’s Department of Poultry Science, at the Aug. 14 hearing. “NBAF will make a contribution to humans and animals worldwide. It would be a great honor, in my opinion, if Athens had a part in that noble cause.”
 
UGA is the largest employer in the city of Athens and the rest of Georgia’s Clarke County with more than 10,000 staffers, according to Georgia Department of Labor statistics included within the DEIS — accounting for more than one out of every eight jobs in Clarke; the city and county are served by a unified government.
 
A key opponent of NBAF in Georgia contends that UGA’s status as the community’s largest employer and landowner explains in large part why NBAF has enjoyed in Georgia the support that has evaporated in North Carolina. There, a public-private consortium suspended its advocacy for NBAF after numerous county and city government boards, as well as state and federal lawmakers, came out against the project in recent weeks [BRN, Aug. 18].
 
“The real difference between North Carolina and Athens is that Athens is a company town. We not only have a company town, but we have a company town that’s run by politicians that are beholden to the company,” Grady Thrasher III, a retired lawyer and Oconee County resident, told BRN. Thrasher and his wife, Kathy Prescott, last year co-founded the anti-NBAF group Athens FAQ, the initials standing for “For Athens Quality-of-Life.”
 
“With regard to the other businesses in Athens, most of them depend indirectly on the good will in the university. While we believe the majority of the citizens of Athens do not want NBAF to be imposed on the community, people are very reluctant to speak out. And we understand that,” Thrasher added.
 
Asked how effective he considered his group and other opponents to have been in Georgia in light of UGA’s community presence, Thrasher replied: “We’ve certainly got [DHS’] attention, and we’ve gotten the community’s attention.”
 
Thrasher noted that opponents have been able to turn out about 300 to the Aug. 14 hearing sessions, and even larger crowds to earlier meetings. The drop-off, he said, resulted from local residents taking summer vacations — as well as an Atlanta Journal-Constitution headline implying that Georgia had lost the project to Mississippi. The headline accompanied a widely distributed Associated Press report that cited an internal DHS memorandum in reporting that Mississippi was placed on the NBAF short list over nine other states with better scores, including biotech powerhouses like California and Maryland.
 
“We started getting calls from people saying, ‘I guess we don’t even need to come to the meeting, now. We won. We won.’ And I said, ‘No, no. This is even worse,’” Thrasher recalled.
 
DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa told BRN earlier this month her department has held three public hearings on NBAF in the Athens area, versus the standard two hearings — two on “scoping” or contents of the report before its completion, the third on the finished DEIS.
 
Athens FAQ, Thrasher said, has sought to make its case by distributing to officials, and posting on its web site, a May report by the US General Accountability Office. The report cited as problematic Athens’ hot and humid climate, and 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.
 
Thrasher’s group and other opponents have objected to NBAF’s proposed site, adjacent to the UGA-run State Botanical Garden of Georgia and nearby Whitehall Forest, and along the Oconee River. The opponents argue that insects living at the garden or near the river could easily spread any pathogen that would escape from the biolab, especially as the region is in the grip of a severe drought projected to have a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.
 
“The thought of it being placed right in our community in one of our more beloved natural areas next to our river during a 100-year drought just seems to be astonishingly reckless and irresponsible on the part of the University of Georgia, the city-county government, and on the Department of Homeland Security,” Thrasher said.
 
Sue Wilde, an area resident opposed to NBAF, said at the hearing the DEIS’ conclusion that the botanical garden and forest would not be harmed by construction of the biolab failed to take into account the degradation of grassland bird habitats she said would result in the 30 acres to be disturbed during the four-year construction period.
 
“This kind of long-term construction and degradation of the pasture land that currently exists between Whitehall Forest and the state botanical garden is not appropriate in an important bird area,” the designation given the area by the state’s Audubon societies, Wilde said. Birds could also be harmed, she said, because they typically migrate at night and the biolab’s parking lot would be lighted at night.
 
At the Aug. 14 hearing, opponents won a concession from DHS when the agency promised to reconcile an apparent contradiction within the DEIS. While the report termed the health and safety effects of NBAF to be “moderate” for all sites except Plum Island, the DEIS’ executive summary summed up the risk by using the word “negligible.”
 
“It is negligible, because we don’t expect a pathogen to be released from the facility,” said Chuck Pergler, deputy project manager responsible for preparing the DEIS, and an executive with Dow Corning, one of two firms DHS employs to oversee the report; the other is Tetra Tech. “We’re going to go back and look at the table. I do understand that many people read the executive summary and don’t necessarily delve into the other. I do understand the conflict.”
 
Despite Pergler’s promise, Prescott said minutes later, she and other NBAF opponents continue to lack confidence that DHS can persuade them that the biolab could be operated in Athens safely: “Tell me why we should believe anything you say, now or ever.
 
“We will use all legal means to keep NBAF away from Athens,” Prescott promised.
 
Prescott gave two reasons for her skepticism: The DEIS did not detail current air quality in the Athens area — but should have, she said, since the biolab has raised the possibility of disposing of animal carcasses through incineration. And the draft environmental report cited NBAF’s inclusion of an insectory to breed mosquitoes as vectors for disease, which she said could help spread deadly Rift Valley fever, even as local fire departments hand out pellets to prevent mosquito breeding around residents’ homes.
 
Thrasher said he and Prescott co-founded Athens FAQ after concluding many Athens-area residents would not otherwise hear arguments against NBAF coming to their community, let alone join them in fighting the biolab, because of the largely supportive coverage given to the project in news stories and editorials by the region’s daily newspaper, the Athens Banner-Herald.
 
In an Aug. 13, 2006, editorial, the newspaper said the biolab could transform part of northeast Georgia into something like North Carolina’s best-known life-science and technology cluster — which that year attracted a Novartis manufacturing plant over sites in the Athens region and Maryland.
 
“As the Novartis facility might have done, the NBAF certainly could serve as a catalyst for transforming Georgia Highway 316, which links the University of Georgia with other major research institutions in Atlanta, into a corridor for high-tech businesses much like North Carolina's famed Research Triangle,” the Banner-Herald opined.
 
Kudwa the DHS spokeswoman told BRN the department finished accepting public comments on the draft environmental report on Aug. 25, and is on track to issue a final environmental impact statement this fall, and a final decision by year’s end.

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