Kansas officials confident that BioLab project will not be derailed

Published 24 October 2009

Congress has allocated $32 million for the design of the Manhattan, Kansas biolab which will replace the aging Plum Island facility; Congress conditioned the release of the rest of the money on the result of studies examining the risks involved in building a biolab in “Tornado alley”; other states that wanted the lab have been slow to give up the fight

Kansas’ long quest to house the nation’s premier animal disease research facility seemed to have triumphed when the U.S. House approved $32 million to start construction. Kansas City Star’s David Klepper writes, though, that

quicker than you can say foot-and-mouth disease, there is a hitch. Before all of that money can be spent on the $450 million facility that would be located in Manhattan, DHS must conduct a risk assessment to ensure the facility does not pose a threat to either livestock or humans (see 8 October 2009 HSNW). The assessment will focus on whether the facility — which will handle some of the world’s deadliest germs — could, either accidentally or through an act of terrorism, leak the germs its charged with studying. Currently research is done at a plant off Long Island, New York.

Kansas officials shrug off the assessment, insisting that it will not slow down or derail the project. A spokeswoman for Senator Pat Roberts noted the studies had been expected. Kansas underwent similar reviews before it was selected for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility.

Governor Mark Parkinson expects the studies to be completed in time to break ground on the lab next summer, but should the test raise questions about the lab’s safety, Kansas could find its winning pitch in jeopardy.

Opponents to the Kansas location welcome the assessment. Tom Manney, chairman of No NBAF in Kansas, said if done correctly, the review should raise questions about the safety of the research anywhere in the continental United States. Manney is a retired Kansas State University biophysics professor and the former chairman of the campus biosafety committee. “We are not sold on the assurances that it’s safe,” he said. “Particularly in the case of foot-and-mouth disease. This whole thing has been so oversold in Kansas,” he added.

A government report last summer suggested DHS did not adequately consider the threat of accidental release of foot-and-mouth disease. That report is one of the reasons why lawmakers in Washington insisted on the risk assessment.

As a Texas lawsuit earlier this year showed, however, other states that wanted the lab have been slow to give up the fight. States could seize on the safety assessment’s outcome, should it cast doubt on Kansas as a suitable location.

The Texas lawsuit, filed by a bioscience consortium, alleged that Kansas’ penchant for tornadoes makes it a poor choice for a biohazard laboratory. It was thrown out by a judge over the summer, and the consortium has yet to appeal. “We would not be surprised if they try to appeal or if other lawmakers raise more questions,” said Parkinson spokesman Seth Bundy.