By Indy Media
Mar 29, 2008
By Stan Cox, CounterPunch.
What would it take to convince you that your town should play host to the world's most feared human and animal pathogens? Believe it or not, five states are locked in fierce competition over a proposed bioterror lab that would have them doing just that.
In 2002, the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was given control of Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. Now DHS is seeking a home in the heartland for a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) that would take over Plum Island's work, along with its potent microbial cultures. The fact that many diseases are now known to jump between humans and animals, combined with this decade's terror-fixation, has led the federal government to convert the agricultural problem of sick livestock into the national-security problem of bioterrorism.
Do I hear a bid?
Lying off the east end of New York's Long Island, Plum Island (which was under the Department of Agriculture until 2002) is the only place in the nation where scientists have previously been allowed to handle the pathogens that cause foot-and-mouth disease, rinderpest, Rift Valley fever, African swine fever, and other horrific maladies that, if let loose on the mainland, could cause billions in agricultural losses and even threaten human populations.
NBAF will be a "biosafety level 4" (BL-4) facility, providing the highest degree of isolation for the world's most dangerous organisms (Plum Island was one notch down, at BL-3, because it was isolated by water). Locations being eyed as possible sites include the University of Georgia campus in Athens; the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan; Flora, Mississippi, near the capital city of Jackson; a research farm 17 miles northeast of Duke University in North Carolina; and a former ranch near San Antonio, Texas.
There is cutthroat competition for the lab, with DHS being courted with the kinds of incentives that go to all big potential employers. The University of Georgia has offered 66 acres of prime real estate worth $15 million and $4.5 million in road and utility improvements. The Kansas Senate approved the issue of $164 million in bonds to pay for land, roads, and security for NBAF. Now, DHS is reportedly demanding that the lab, wherever it is sited, have its own energy source, a natural gas-fired power plant. Governor Kathleen Sebelius immediately agreed to throw that into the Kansas bid.
A big bio-gamble
Every potential location for the bioterror facility lies close to large human and animal populations. In Manhattan, Kansas, for example, the lab would be located not only in an agricultural region, and not only in the nation's second most tornado-prone state, but also within hailing distance of a senior-citizen home, a student housing area, an affordable-housing complex, a student recreation facility, a football stadium, and a basketball arena.
Kansas State University biology professor Walter Dodd will be have the new bioterror lab a mile north of his workplace if his state wins the sweepstakes. He says that in the struggle over the lab, it's impossible to compare risks. "There has been no formal risk assessment of the BSL-4 facility that is available to the public. Likewise, knowing the risk from terrorists introducing new pathogens is difficult." Although, he says, "We need to do this type of research because we must control diseases if possible," he worries about the proposed locations: "Putting the facility near a city or agricultural production strips one level of protection away." Dodd has recommended putting the lab in a desert or back on Plum Island.
Last year, DHS held a series of public meetings at the five candidate sites for the lab, soliciting comment on environmental, health, safety, and socioeconomic issues. The Department compiled almost 4000 such comments, the majority of them apparently negative. Residents raised a host of alarms about accidents, sabotage, natural disasters, ecosystem damage, water contamination, human or animal epidemics, use of the lab for secret, sinister research, and the general ineptitude of DHS. The Department is working on its responses.
When the bioterror lab is awarded to one of the five contenders this fall, residents of the "winning" location will be asked to accept such vaguely defined risks in good patriotic spirit, to protect the nation's cities, towns, pastures, and feedlots from a hypothetical terrorist attack. But the facility will be run by administrators drawn from the same pool as those who responded to the only actual bioterror attack in this country to date -- the anthrax mailings of October, 2001 -- and who have made virtually no progress in solving them.
Furthermore, as I argued on the CounterPunch site in 2004, any agroterrorists who might want to see their mission accomplished in rural America need only sit back and watch. Agrocapitalism is already doing their work for them: poisoning water supplies, releasing antibiotic-resistant, highly pathogenic bacteria into streams and dust clouds, and contaminating our food supply.
Read the rest of the article here.