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Kansas site selected for agro-defense facility

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Dec 12, 2008
by WLJ

The Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). The site chosen as being the "preferred" location is the campus of Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, KS.

NBAF will be a $500 million state-of-the-art, high-security laboratory facility meant to study foreign animal and zoonotic diseases that can impact livestock. Zoonotic diseases are those which are transferrable from animals to humans.

Designed to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) in New York, NBAF would take over PIADC’s responsibilities in being the only facility in the U.S. to study the live virus that causes foot and mouth disease (FMD). DHS has deemed PIADC to be too small to meet new research needs, as it has an outdated physical structure which is not appropriate for zoonotic disease research. Zoonotic research requires facilities which operate at a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4), the highest level of security.

Currently, no laboratory in the U.S. is capable of BSL-4 research for livestock, and once NBAF is operational, PIADC will be closed following an evaluation by DHS regarding available future land-use options.

Out of nearly 30 initial applicants from local governments seeking the bid to host the NBAF facility, five were chosen for final consideration, along with a possible "no action" alternative which would keep testing at PIADC. Athens, GA, Manhattan, KS, Madison County, MS, Granville County, NC, and San Antonio, TX, were all considered finalists for the future NBAF location.

The latest news from DHS which lists Manhattan as the preferred site as determined by the EIS is not a final declaration of where (or if) the facility will be built. A comment period now follows before a formal Record of Decision is published on Jan. 12, 2009. Facility design would then begin in 2009, with construction expected to start in 2010. DHS expects the facility would be operational by 2015.

Lobbying committees from the other four finalists which sought the facility can also appeal DHS’s decision.

"This facility, once built, will help us to protect our livestock industry, food supply, and public health from the accidental or intentional introduction of a foreign animal or zoonotic disease in the U.S.," said DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology Jay Cohen. "The assessment process was extensive, engaging experts within and without the government as well as each potential site community, and this final report carefully weights the input from all interested parties."

Opposition groups in the cities where NBAF was likely to be located protested the decision to build such a facility on the U.S. mainland where, unlike Plum Island, a disease release would immediately threaten the country’s humans and livestock. Many had concerns that the site finalists were all in areas with high concentrations of livestock.

In the EIS, approximate dollar figures are attached to the release of FMD at any of the sites, and the negative economic impact on the livestock industry was considered to be highest at Manhattan, with estimated damages of $4.2 billion. San Antonio was a close second, with damages of $4.1 billion.

The bulk of those losses would come as a result of embargoes on international beef trade, estimated at $3.1 billion, and would occur no matter where the site was located. Damages to the domestic industry, however, were also highest at the Manhattan location, at $1.1 billion. Manhattan also had the greatest number of cattle in the vicinity of the site, estimated at some 542,547 head.

According to DHS, the EIS analyzes "health and safety issues, land use, visual effects, infrastructure requirements (potable water, electricity, fuel, sewer, etc.), air and water quality, noise, geology and soils, biological and cultural resources, traffic and transportation issues, waste management, existing environmental issues, and cumulative effects."

Considered to be strong reasons for choosing the Manhattan site was NBAF’s proximity to existing high research and the incentive packages offered by state and local governments. A coalition of public officials including Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Sens. Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Sam Brownback, R-KS, gave their support to the effort, which included a $105 million package offering land and infrastructure improvements for the proposed site.

Immediately adjacent to the NBAF facility is an existing $54 million BSL-3 laboratory known as the Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI), recently opened on the KSU campus. BRI is already staffed by zoonotic experts and could serve in the interim to handle additional high-consequence disease research.

Additionally, the Heartland Bio Agro Consortium teamed with the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute to promote the Manhattan site, as the greater Kansas City area is already a major veterinary research hub, including 165 life science companies in the region.

Livestock groups in the area are supportive of NBAF but remain somewhat leery, says Todd Domer of the Kansas Livestock Association.

"The thing we asked from DHS during this process was for assurances that the industry would be protected from the accidental or intentional release of hazardous agents. We have to have extensive safety protocols," he said. "Our members want to conduct research that protects the health of livestock because, obviously, we’re dealing with the different set of threats than what we were faced with when the Plum Island facility was built, and we want to have research in how to counter those threats."

Domer said that based on what he’s seen from BRI, he has confidence in the security protocols required of the NBAF facility.

"They have assured us with the BRI that the latest and most modern technology available in the world is being used to contain the diseases they’re researching," he explained. "Some of our leadership has already toured that facility, and the safety measures they have in place are pretty impressive. Being that NBAF is another security level higher, I’m sure its safety measures will be even more impressive."

It’s impossible to ignore the possible ramifications on the livestock industry should a disease release occur, says Domer, but it’s something the industry must live with if such research is to be conducted.

"We’ve got to trust in what they say, but then there is a lot at stake for our industry, and I think most people right now are just being very cautious when approached with this idea." — Tait Berlier, WLJ Editor

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