Farm Talk

Ag News from Around the Country

October 19, 2010

Biodefense lab holdup not a concern

Manhattan, Kan. — MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP)—The Department of Homeland Security selected a 45-acre Kansas State University site to host the National Bio and Agrodefense Facility nearly two years ago.

So why is the university still waiting to hand the site over to the federal government?

As recently as mid-year, officials projected the title transfer to take place by September following the completion of site preparation work.

September has turned to October, and the title transfer appears to be awaiting completion of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review of safety procedures related to the facility as well as the subsequent governmental review of that study.

DHS officials recently released an updated schedule for the project.

Under the new schedule, construction contracts for the central utility plant, main laboratory facility and outer buildings will be awarded early next year. Construction will actually start in 2012 and is expected to be completed by 2016.

The facility will receive accreditation in 2017 with operations fully transferred from Plum Island, N.Y., by 2018.

The 45-acre site is presently owned by the Kansas Board of Regents.

John Verrico, spokesperson for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, said DHS will take title to the land once the NAS study is submitted to Congress, which he expects to happen within "the next few months." NAS is also expected to publish its findings, which Congress will review.

But with Congress in recess until after the election, that review could take place before any postelection session even if NAS releases it.

DHS commissioned the $451 million state-of-the-art, national laboratory to research zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) that have the potential to affect animal health and public health.

Similar research is conducted at a facility in Plum Island.

The operations will be moved to Manhattan once construction of the facility is completed.

Officials close to the project say that the holdup is not a concern. They view it as indicative of the bureaucratic process involved with building a government-funded facility.

Kip Peterson, spokesperson for the Kansas Board of Regents, said the "wheels are spinning slowly."

"The federal process is just taking longer than anticipated," Peterson said.

Tom Thornton, president and CEO of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, noted that it took more than three months just to draw up the memorandum of understanding, a document describing the multilateral agreement between the involved parties.

"I'm not surprised or concerned that it has taken so long to be transferred," Thornton said.

Verrico said that the government isn't taking any chances with the study or review.

He said it's imperative that it be extremely accurate because of the government's investment and because of the safety risks involved with studying zoonotic diseases in area with a sizable livestock population.

Verrico also said the transfer of the land is really more of a "formality," and a small step in a lengthy process.

He said the study is really more important for the construction of the facility because it is only at the 35 percent design phase, and much of the information from the study will go into the design.

"There's a lot of stuff involved in any construction process, especially when you're talking about a secure facility," Verrico said.

Sen. Pat Roberts, one of the leading proponents of the choice of Kansas for the lab, said the holdup is related to the "appropriators." Roberts didn't identify anyone specifically, but the term would seem to refer to members of Congress who will eventually appropriate funds for construction of the facility. Several members of the committee charged with reviewing NBAF appropriations have previously expressed reservations regarding the project.

Theoretically, the land could be transferred before Congress reviews the study, but it is unlikely due to the chance that funding for the project could be held up, leaving the federal government with title to the land it can't develop.

Verrico said the transfer of the land, and the construction of the facility, aren't necessarily contingent on governmental review, but they're "intertwined" with it.

"Transferring the land before the reviews is not going to happen," Thornton said.

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