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A step forward for NBAF

Utilities plant contract constitutes progress

By The Mercury

Kansas and the Manhattan area got some long-awaited good news on Friday with the announcement that the Department of Homeland Security had finally awarded a contract for construction of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility’s central utilities plant.

It’s a big deal — perhaps bigger than the $40 million in appropriations from fiscal year 2011, which is to be matched by $40 million the State of Kansas is providing. It’s a big deal because construction of the central utilities plant, which will hold NBAF’s primary heating and cooling systems as well as diesel generators to supply emergency power, will provide helpful momentum for the research facility. Apart from the transfer of land — 46 acres near the Biosecurity Research Institute at KSU, to the federal government earlier this year — NBAF’s progress had largely stalled. Construction of the utilities plant, an 87,000-square-foot building on the site, is expected to take about two and one-half years.

After a nationwide search, Manhattan was chosen as the site for NBAF in 2009. At the time, its cost was estimated at $450 million. Because of the passage of time and upgrades, the projected cost now exceeds $1 billion.

NBAF will be a biosafety level 4 facility at which scientists will conduct research into foreign animal, emerging and zoonotic diseases that imperil U.S. agriculture and public health. NBAF will replace an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y. DHS notes that NBAF will “strengthen our nation with critical capabilities to conduct research, develop vaccines and other countermeasures…” Foot-and-mouth disease, Rift Valley fever and Nipah virus are among diseases to be studied.

Although the contract for the central utilities plant is cause for optimism, much remains to be done, and the pace at which our government often operates can quickly erode optimism. DHS still hasn’t made clear whether the facility to be built will be the one originally envisioned or one that’s scaled back, presumably to reduce the cost.

One thing Kansans can be certain of is that Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, along with the rest of the congressional delegation, will continue their efforts to ensure that NBAF remains a priority in Washington. That shouldn’t be difficult given the ever-present concern about biological warfare, though transforming such concern into funding approval — especially at a time when lawmakers are trying to cut federal spending — will be difficult.

For now, let us celebrate the awarding of the contract for the utilities plant. It’s just one step, but it’s an important one.

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