Congress allocates funds for planning Kansas biolab

Published 8 October 2009

Congress allocates $32 million for planning and design of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas; the money for construction of the 520,000-square-foot lab and the transferring of research equipment from Plum Island, New York — about $915 million — will be released only if security concerns are satisfactorily addressed

Congressional negotiators agreed Wednesday to allow DHS to spend federal money planning and designing a foot-and-mouth research lab in Kansas, but they want more study on its safety before allowing money to be used for its construction.

A DHS spending bill approved by a House and Senate conference committee includes $32 million for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility planned for Manhattan, Kansas.  The negotiators also asked for studies to prove that the lab can operate safely and tied construction money to that request.

The House wanted to withhold all money until a third party studied the lab’s safety, while the Senate wanted to give DHS the money and have it do the study. In a compromise, Wednesday’s move awards the money for planning but requires the additional study before any funds could be used for construction of the facility.

The Houston Chronicle reports that it was unclear how much of the money was available for planning and design. DHS officials originally wanted $36 million to start work on the lab. Of that amount, $27 million was for planning.

There has been opposition to the lab and the foot-and-mouth disease research to be done there, based in part on concerns that an accidental release of the disease would devastate livestock.

The compromise spending bill must be approved by the House and Senate before going to the president. Final approval is almost certain.

Negotiators want DHS to study the risks of operating the planned 520,000-square-foot lab, known as NBAF, and what would be required to safely operate it. The study is to be reviewed and validated by the National Academy of Sciences, said Representative David Price, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s homeland security subcommittee.

Also, the secretaries of DHS and the Agriculture Departments must report to congressional committees on what procedures it will use to issue a permit for foot-and-mouth disease research and on an emergency response plan if there is an accidental release, Price said in documents released at the conference committee hearing.

Kansas lawmakers hailed the agreement as a clear victory for the facility’s placement in Kansas. “It is a clear indication the Congress understands the importance of building a new lab to protect the nation’s food supply and supports moving ahead with construction of the lab in Kansas. This is an important step forward,” said Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).

DHS chose Manhattan, Kansas, for the lab after a competition among several states, with five states reaching the final stage of the competition. The department and Kansas state and federal officials have repeatedly said that the lab can be safely operated in the state. Costs for the lab and transferring of research there are estimated to reach $915 million, with Kansas providing at least $110 million and land for the lab.

A group that tried to lure the site to Texas, one of the finalists for the lab, challenged the selection decision in a lawsuit. Among other things, the Texas group alleged political influence played a role in the selection of the Kansas site and that the Homeland Security Department failed to consider tornado dangers in the state. The lawsuit was dismissed as prematurely filed.

Michigan Democratic Representatives Bart Stupak and John Dingell, former Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, raised concerns last year about the planned move of foot-and-mouth research to the U.S. mainland.

Stupak, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said more hearings were planned on the lab and a report from the Government Accountability Office also is pending. “This issue is far from being decided,” Stupak said.

Foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle and swine, was eradicated from the United States in 1929. The Kansas lab is intended to replace the aging lab at Plum Island, N.Y. where research has been confined.

Other deadly diseases will be studied at the lab, including diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.

In a July report, the Government Accountability Office criticized an earlier DHS study of the risks of relocating the research. The GAO said the department improperly studied the dispersion risk if an accidental release occurred. It also said DHS did not include market response to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in its economic analysis.

DHS has said building the lab on the U.S. mainland will allow for rapid response to animal disease outbreaks.