More applicants for US bio-agro lab

List grows to 29; some nearby communities voice mixed reactions

By | May 17, 2006

The official list of proposed sites to house a $491 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) has grown to 29, twice as many as there appeared to be just before the March 31 proposal deadline. However, in at least a few locations, community reaction to the proposals -- one of the four criteria the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will use to make its decision -- has been decidedly mixed. Universities, state and local governments, and other organizations in 22 states and the District of Columbia have proposed 29 sites for the 500,000 square-foot building, which will replace DHS's 50-year old Plum Island animal research facility near Long Island, New York. Eight of the states are in the South, five are in the Southwest, five are in the Midwest, three are in the East and one is in California. Researchers from DHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture will use the NBAF to develop vaccines and drugs to fight animal and human diseases terrorists might spread during an attack. DHS has said it will choose a "short list" of candidates by the fall and hopes to start construction in 2009. A DHS spokesperson declined requests for an interview. While local governments, universities, and business communities near proposed sites have embraced the project, some potential neighbors aren't so sure. In rural Somerset, Kentucky, 2,817 residents have signed a petition opposing the NBAF, according to the March 16 Lexington Herald-Leader. At the University of North Dakota, after three biology professors and other speakers at a community meeting this month criticized building the NBAF on native, untilled prairie land, the university agreed to find a different location, associate vice president for research Barry Milavetz told The Scientist yesterday. Another site of resident opposition is Columbia, Missouri, where the University of Missouri has partnered with other universities and several animal health companies to propose building the NBAF three miles southeast of the campus. The proposal has been endorsed by several local governments, state government departments, and organizations such as the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, and several venture capital firms. Joe Kornegay, dean of UM's college of Veterinary Medicine, told The Scientist the site will be perfectly placed in the region's "biotech corridor," which stretches from St. Louis to Kansas City along Interstate 70. UM has been very open to citizens about its plans, he said. The school has put its entire proposal and maps of the location on a Web site, held a meeting with community leaders and another with the general public, and established an email address ( for public comments. Laura Nurnberg, a stay-at-home mom with a master's degree in education who lives nearby, disagrees with Kornegay's description of openness. She told The Scientist that flyers announcing the public meeting were passed out only one day in advance, and several of her neighbors say they never received one. More importantly, Nurnberg said, an elementary school with 300 students sits one-quarter of a mile away, and a nursing home is also nearby. "They said the number one reason they chose this piece of property over other suggestions was the convenience of the property to their employees," said Nurnberg. There are several cases on record where lab employees became sick with diseases they were working on and carried them out of their labs. Indeed, Jerry Morin, a commercial real estate broker whose property lies close to the proposed site, said he plans to move if the proposal is accepted, and has cancelled plans to build a $400,000 home, out of fear that stigma from the facility will lower property values. Kornegay confirmed employee convenience was a key factor in choosing the site, but said that the facility will be extremely safe. John Dudley Miller Links within this article J.D. Miller, "Fourteen states want US bio-agro lab," The Scientist, April 3, 2006. US Department of Homeland Security, "National Bio and Agro-defense Facility: Information for potential respondents." J.D. Miller, "US homeland security to build animal biolab," The Scientist, February 6, 2006. National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, Notice of request for Expression of Interest, Federal Register, January 19, 2006. University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine, National Bio and Agro-defense Facility web site. Council on Responsible Genetics, "Mistakes happen: A list of accidents and security breaches at biocontainment facilities."

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