GAO slams choice of Kansas as location of new BioLab

its choice, and said the GAO’s findings show that the selection method was “preposterous.”

They call it ‘Tornado Alley’ for a reason,” said Michael Guiffre, an attorney for the consortium. “This really boils down to politics at its very worst and public officials who are more concerned about erecting some gleaming new research building than thinking about what’s best for the general public.”

DHS officials and Kansas leaders say the selection system, which began in late 2006, was always fair and open. Brownback has noted that George W. Bush was president in mid-January when his home state of Texas lost the competition. “The process involved a transparent six-year process, run by career civil servants and punctuated with multiple public meetings near each finalist location,” DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said.

The DHS lab would replace and expand upon the mission of a federal research facility on Plum Island, a remote island on the northern tip of Long Island, New York. Critics of moving the operation to the mainland argue that a release could lead to widespread contamination that could kill livestock, devastate a farm economy and endanger humans. Along with the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, NBAF researchers plan to study African swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever and other viruses.

GAO’s draft report said the agency’s assessment of the risk of accidental release of toxins on mainland locations, including Kansas, was based on “unrepresentative accident scenarios,” “outdated modeling” and “inadequate” information about the sites. The agency’s analysis of the economic impact of domestic cattle being infected by foot-and-mouth disease played down the financial losses by not considering the worst-case scenario.

The agency noted that the United Kingdom’s outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, which resulted from an accidental release at a biological research laboratory south of London. Six million sheep, cattle, and pigs were slaughtered to stop the contamination, and the country’s agriculture market, comparatively a fraction of the U.S. market, lost $4.9 billion.

DHS had cited a foot-and-mouth disease facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as evidence that doing this research on the mainland is safe. GAO said, however, that is illogical: The NBAF would have a less sophisticated method for containing releases than the Winnipeg lab, it said, but would handle as many as 10 times the number of animals.

Selecting a spot for the lab has been rife with political battling and vigorous lobbying from five states that were finalists. Though the general public repeatedly voiced concern about the safety of such research, elected leaders were seeking the $3.5 billion jolt that the facility was expected to bring to its host’s economy.

Critics of the selection of Kansas note that DHS undersecretary Jay Cohen and others met often with the state’s senators. Brownback said this month that he had helped add $36 million to a Senate bill to build the Kansas facility, and that he would work for the same in the House. “We fought hard for this funding, and I’m glad my colleagues in the Senate realized the significant role this facility will play in researching emerging diseases that could endanger our food supply,” he said on his Web site.

In recent days, DHS science officials involved in choosing the Manhattan site, adjoining Kansas State University, told Secretary Janet Napolitano’s top staff members that GAO exceeded its authority in reviewing the agency’s risk assessment, according to internal correspondence shared with the Post.

Chandler confirmed that agency staff members told the Energy and Commerce subcommittee staff members in their meeting last Monday that DHS would prefer not to have a hearing now. DHS officials were not trying to avoid discussing the issue during the appropriations process, Chandler said, but wanted to avoid wasting the agency’s and committee’s time until they saw the final GAO report. “This has nothing to do with politics,” Chandler said. “This is about logical reasoning … and was in the interest of everyone’s time.”