For those already concerned about the wisdom of placing a high-level disease lab in the heart of U.S. cattle country, last year’s developments were less than reassuring. Federal mishandling of infectious agents like anthrax, avian flu and smallpox and a botched response to the Ebola virus called into question protocols at the once highly respected Centers for Disease Control and raised general concerns about the federal government’s ability to secure disease research facilities, adequately train employees and carefully monitor procedures.
Meanwhile, the remaining funds needed to complete the new $1.2 billion National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, already under construction on the Kansas State University campus, were finalized by Congress in early March.
NBAF will be operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, not the CDC, but security breaches that occurred at human disease labs in recent months have highlighted the potential risks, ranging from unsecured ventilation systems in critical areas to employees with unrestricted access to potentially dangerous materials to mislabeled or mishandled disease specimens.
“It’s an ongoing concern. We were vigorously opposed to putting it here,” said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, while he was in nearby Wichita for the group’s national convention. “I think it will be a concern for a long time to come due of the nature of the diseases they’ll be doing research on.”
Highly contagious foot and mouth disease, which spreads easily by air, is the key pathogen that strikes dread in most producers’ minds, but K-State’s new facility will conduct work on a handful of other high-risk disease agents. To this point, such research was done at an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y., which Johnson said at least offered an “isolation factor.”
Landing the lab in Kansas was the result of a national competitive bidding process and has heralded by many state leaders for bringing economic activity and prestige to the region.
“Frankly, for the state of Kansas, it’s a good thing,” said Daryl Larson, who farms and ranches near McPherson. “In the short term, it’s a boon. But if anything ever gets released out of that facility, everything around here will be gone times a hundred.”
Larson said he preferred having the facility in Manhattan to a competing site in San Antonio, however.
“If it’s in Texas and there’s a leak of some kind, when the south wind blows, the whole state of Kansas would have it,” he said.
Prevailing winds are a common theme among those who have concerns about the facility.
“I’m located 35 miles northeast of it, and the prevailing winds are out of the south. I’ll be the first victim if there is a release,” said Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union and a farmer from Wheaton, Kan.
Many producers, Teske included, believe it is not a matter of “if” but “when” an escape will occur. Kansas is periodically hit with natural disasters, such as a tornado that damaged the university in 2008. Late last year, the state recorded its largest earthquake in more than 100 years, which caused structural damage in the small town of Conway Springs. While the facility is being built to withstand physical threats, human error can also contribute to leaks.
“It’s happened multiple times at Plum Island and in other parts of the world,” Teske said.
For opponents of the project, the focus has gradually shifted from opposition to a watchdog role.
Mike Schultz, former president of the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association, a group that fought against bringing the facility to Kansas, said he’s concerned about the decade-long transition process as federal disease research is moved between old labs and new. The Kansas facility is expected to become operational sometime around 2022 with assistance from the university’s existing Biosecurity Research Institute.
“The BRI, Plum Island’s USDA researchers and the Department of Homeland Security are very engaged and working together closely during this time to ensure that the transfer of agents at each step on the transition process is a well-regulated, safe and secure process,” said BRI Director Stephen Higgs in a project update issued by the university.
Nick Levendofsky, who covered NBAF protests as a journalism student at K-State and was disturbed by some of the questions raised, is now communications and project coordinator for Kansas Farmers Union and finds himself in the position of keeping the issue in front of lawmakers juggling multiple priorities.
“It’s a matter now of how well it will be funded. That’s my concern,” he said. “We’ve carried that message to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and to his staff in Washington and to Congress. This research is vital to our food security but the safety risks are still there as well.”
Economic crises, budget wrangling, government shutdowns and lack of accountability by federal agencies are all recent examples of developments prompting those with concerns to stay vigilant.
“We just have to keep the pressure on,” Levendofsky said.
Making sure the facility is adequately maintained over time will also be a multigenerational effort, points out Norm Oeding, a grass-fed beef producer from Newton. “If not us, what about our children and grandchildren?” he said.
For Matthew Ubel, a young beginning farmer who runs cattle near Onaga, roughly 50 miles north of Manhattan, the lab’s placement is overshadowed by more immediate concerns like whether the state’s budget shortfall will lead to drastic increases in property taxes.
“I’m concerned about it, but there’s no stopping it now,” he said of the facility. “It’s something I’ve got to live with and just be aware of. I’m not going to move just because of that.”