Citizens’ group concerned about NBAF safety following safety lapses at CDC

By Bryan Richardson

After three safety breaches in the past two months at federal laboratories, a citizen spoke to the city commission about her concerns with Manhattan’s future federal lab.

Sylvia Beeman, a spokesperson for the citizen group Biosecurity for the Heartland, spoke during the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting.

The group originally organized in opposition to the planned National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) coming to Manhattan.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security facility will be the nation’s lead research facility for large animal disease study. This includes foot-and-mouth disease research, which will be conducted for the first time on the U.S. mainland.

Beeman said the group’s concern is now making sure the facility is as safe as possible.

“We just want to make sure that no one ever forgets that it’s not something you can ever become complacent about,” she said.

On June 19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced approximately 75 employees had been exposed to live anthrax due to safety practices not being followed.

On July 8, National Institutes of Health employees found vials from the 1950s containing freeze-dried smallpox virus in an storage facility on the Bethesda, Md., campus.

When announcing the temporary closing of CDC anthrax and flu labs on July 11, CDC officials revealed a benign strain of avian influenza had been cross-contaminated with a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain and shipped to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab. There were no exposures as a result of that incident.

Beeman said fatigue often sets in before human error occurs in a laboratory.

“The cause of the majority of these accidents was human error and not age or technical capabilities of the lab,” she said.

Mayor Wynn Butler said the CDC perhaps has a culture problem.

“NBAF is going to be a new facility,” he said. “If you build in the right culture, you can prevent some of those problems from happening from the get-go.”

Beeman said the same type of people will operate the Manhattan facility.

“The CDC is the gem laboratory of this country,” she said. “Those people aren’t idiots.”

Butler said the city already has involvement with the process, meeting with DHS officials previously.

Commissioner Karen McCulloh said it would make sense for the city to have a designated NBAF person on staff.

Commissioner John Matta said the current commission has heightened awareness, but people could become complacent in the future as commission and city staff experiences turnover.

“People like yourself who are keeping an eye out can come back and kind of remind the new folks here in five to ten years,” he said.

Rezoning items


The commission unanimously approved the first reading of two rezoning items during the meeting.

The first item concerned the Merion Addition, a 29.4-acre tract of land in the Grand Mere area, west of the fifth fairway of Colbert Hills Golf Course.

The original plan designated the area as a single-family residential suburban district with large estate-sized single-family homes.

In the new plan, 22.83 acres will be a single-family residential district with smaller homes, and 6.57 acres will be a multiple-family residential district for proposed 18-unit apartment buildings.

The second item concerned amending the city ordinance to allow for hospitals as a conditional use in the restricted business district.

This vote paves the way for Jeff Mathis to establish a psychiatrist and psychologist office and mental health hospital in existing buildings at 720 Poyntz Ave.

In a letter to the city, Mathis said the facility would treat children and young adults for mental health issues.

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