Research committee takes feedback on NBAF concerns

By Bryan Richardson

Members of a National Research Council committee charged with evaluating an updated site-specific risk assessment for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) gathered feedback from state and local officials as well as people challenging the facility’s safety here Friday.

The NBAF, scheduled to be fully operational in 2018, would replace the current Plum Island facility as the nation’s lead research facility in areas such as animal disease and agro-terrorism.

Friday’s session was the fourth of five scheduled meetings for the committee, which will deliver its report in June. Greg Baecher, committee chair, said the purpose was to ask questions of the Kansas State faculty as well as listen to the public. He termed it “really premature to say what our concerns are until we see the (risk-assessment) document.”

The Congressionally commissioned assessment by the Department of Homeland Security is expected to be completed in February.

The first assessment, done in 2010, identified several vulnerabilities such as a nearly 70 percent cumulative risk of a foot-and-mouth-disease (FMD) infection over the 50-year lifespan and a lack of mitigation strategy.

University and state officials addressed questions posed by four of the 17 committee members who were present Friday. The topics included training, collaboration efforts, protocol for reporting possible diseased animals and the community’s preparedness.

Juergen Richt, Regents Distinguished Professor at K-State’s veterinary medicine college, said training for the NBAF would likely be done with at least the same frequency as the BRI, which means at least annually.

“If you don’t have this training every year, you are not approved to work with these agents,” Richt said of the BRI training exercises.

Committee member Akula Venkatram wondered about the exercises and training that would allow K-State officials to deal with a release. “The response has to be in some sense led by, or at least partially by, KSU faculty and KSU staff,” he said.

Richt said there have been preliminary interactions with Mercy Regional Health Center to prepare for such eventualities.

Landon Fulmer, Gov. Sam Brownback’s policy director, said the state would develop a site-specific response plan developed for the NBAF. He said it’s similar to what has already been done for the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in Coffey County.

Fulmer mentioned that the state is providing $35 million to help train Kansas people to work at the NBAF. “We’re investing in that type of training here and we’re putting money on the table,” he said. “Kansas is a big partner in this with the federal government.”

Stephen Higgs, Biosecurity Research Institute director, said the training would also apply to K-State students, who are expected to have some involvement. He referred to the BRI as an example, saying it could take weeks or months for a person to obtain permission to work.

“No matter how good they think they are, until our professional trainers assess their level of expertise, they cannot go into our labs,” he said.

While funding for the NBAF isn’t secured, there’s some implication that construction of the facility will move forward if funding is available. Baecher said he didn’t know whether the committee’s findings would have any impact on funding.

In addition to the need for a new facility, local officials have said that the Manhattan area stands to benefit from the placement of the NBAF here.

Lyle Butler, Chamber of Commerce president, said previously that he anticipated the facility becoming the community’s third economic engine along with Ft. Riley and K-State.

Officials said at the time of Manhattan’s selection that NBAF would create 1,500 construction jobs and employ 300 persons with a $25-30 million permanent payroll. K-State’s plans to become a top 50 public research university are partially dependent on the NBAF.

“This is one of those interesting places where politics meets science,” Fulmer said.

As far as the committee is concerned, Baecher said their job is simply to provide a scientific evaluation of the updated risk assessment.

“We are not charged and will form no opinion as a committee whether such a facility should be built or if it should be built in Manhattan, Kansas,” he said. “Those are all issues irrelevant to this particular committee.”

The public comment period showed disconnect between the benefits and mitigation efforts touted by university and state officials and the safety concerns by the general public. Two Kansas State professors were among the concerned.

Torry Dickinson, women’s studies professor, said she is worried about her students and the effects that a release could have on them. “Many faculty at Kansas State are afraid that the risk is too high,” she said.

Dickinson also said the entire process hasn’t been transparent. “There are many of us who have not been speaking because this hasn’t been an open process,” she said.

Robert Schaeffer, sociology professor, said his concerns involved private insurance companies and the release of information. He said insurance companies could assess the facility as high risk, which would either increase the price greatly or cause companies to leave Manhattan.

Schaeffer said there needs to be an awareness of the outflow of scientists and workers associated with the project.  “They need not take a deadly pathogen out of the lab to do great harm,” he said. “They need only walk out of the lab with the knowledge needed to make a deadly pathogen to do great harm.”

Information about deadly diseases getting into the wrong hands has been a concern of those in the scientific field. Most recently, it has come up about research involving the creation of a highly transmittable form of H5N1, the virus that cause bird flu; research has been paused and research will be published in redacted form.

Stephen Anderson, farmer and rancher, spoke of the names of tragedies such as 9/11, the Titanic, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and various nuclear plant core meltdowns.

“What do all these events have in common?” Anderson asked. “Human error, mechanical failure or a catastrophic event of nature. And they were all totally unexpected.”

Baecher said any additional public comments can be sent to Peggy Tsai at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.

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