Animal Disease Center's New Home Proves Difficult

The animal disease center that the Homeland Security department has maintained since Sept. 11 has fallen into disrepair. A proposed new location in Kansas has been riddled with neighborhood concerns, safety threats and escalating costs. Laura Ziegler of Harvest Public Media reports.

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For the past 50 years, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the coast of New York was a research base for some of the world's most lethal bacteria and viruses. The Department of Homeland Security took it over after 9/11. But the facility has deteriorated over the years, and they've chosen Kansas as a place to build a more modern lab. However, the new location has drawn the ire of nearby live stock ranchers and costs for the facility have skyrocketed. Laura Ziegler of Harvest Public Media visited the site, and she has this story.

LAURA ZIEGLER, BYLINE: The National Bio and Agro Defense Facility or NBAF even sounds kind of scary, doesn't it? And the Plum Island Animal Disease Center itself has a creepy Cold War image. Former wrestling star come Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura even did a YouTube expose.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

JESSE VENTURA: I've heard things that'll blow your mind, and now I think it's time you get the whole story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now, the government's real-life island of horror.

ZIEGLER: Now, the government wants to move this research to the campus of Kansas State University in the heart of the so-called beef belt, a center of livestock production. The project has divided ranchers. While some see it as vital research for the protection of their animals, others fear moving deadly bacteria and highly contagious viruses like foot-and-mouth disease to farm country doesn't make sense.

In the United States, the only place it's been studied is on Plum Island, surrounded by water, because on the mainland, it would spread like wildfire on the flint hills, where Stephen Anderson's cattle now graze.

STEPHEN ANDERSON: Foot and mouth escaped in Kansas would be a catastrophe equal to the dust bowl of the dirty '30s.

ZIEGLER: To learn more about the new lab, residents of Manhattan, Kansas and local professors organized community meetings early on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, they're going to rely on the naivete and the passivity of the local population. I'd love to see the...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do we need it? Yes, we need it, but it's got a place. And that place is right there on Plum Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ZIEGLER: Walking around the muddy perimeter of the NBAF site - today just a gigantic hole in the ground - it could be a construction site anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ZIEGLER: What's different, of course, about this site is that, for one thing, it's surrounded by intense black fence with red, white and blue signs that say U.S. Government Property, No Trespassing. And there are at least two security posts.

Whether the facility will actually be built remains an open question. This year's funding was cut by two-thirds, and almost completely for next year. Add to that a damning report from a panel of scientists at the National Research Council that found major shortcomings in the DHS plan. But Homeland Security has incorporated the recommendations of the scientists in the new design and says it reduces the risk of a pathogen release to far less than 1 percent. Kansas Senator Pat Roberts has made the project a priority and says he'll make sure DHS follows through.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: The Department of Homeland Security must honor - must honor - its commitment to building NBAF in Kansas in a timely matter. I will hold them to doing just that.

ZIEGLER: R.W. Trewyn is a vice president of research at Kansas State University, and he says this updated NBAF facility will be critical to creating a nationally recognized center of animal science and food safety.

R.W. TREWYN: They have updated from things that would exceed tornado shelter standards to things that meet the nuclear regulatory review for nuclear power plants.

ZIEGLER: Supporters say the $3 billion in economic development and scientific prestige Kansas will get justifies the expense, which has more than doubled since the project was first proposed five years ago. It's now pushing a billion dollars. But before it gets built, skeptics in Kansas and Washington want to know that the people and animals in the region are safe from exposure to lethal germs the new facility will research. For NPR News, I'm Laura Ziegler in Kansas City.

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