Sam: Long — but winning — NBAF fight looms

By Bill Felber

Gov. Sam Brownback reiterated Thursday that he expects the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility to be built in Manhattan, though he predicted a long fight before that happens.

The governor attributed President Barack Obama’s decision Monday to strike funds for construction of the facility from his 2013 budget to the projected sharply rising cost of the facility. Originally estimated at about $450 million, the facility has recently been projected to cost more than $650 million.

He said he talked Tuesday with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who he said reaffirmed the administration’s intention to build the facility here.

“The issue she is putting forward is the scope and size of the project,” he said. The governor said the National Academy of Sciences studies conducted over the past couple of years have increased the facility’s price tag by 30 percent. “They’re trying to get that cost contained and held back,” Brownback said.

Other sources had other explanations for the administration’s change of course.

The head of the science and technology branch of the DHS was quoted in a science publication Wednesday as saying that a new DHS task force will re-review the need for the facility.

“What we are going to do beginning this spring is set up a task force in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and [the Department of] Health and Human Services that will take a comprehensive look at the current threat spectrum from terrorism to foreign invasive species to new zoonotic diseases,” said Tara O’Toole, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS. “We are going to ask the question, do we need to build a BSL-4 lab to tackle these threats — yes or no? And is there an alternative to doing that?”

O’Toole’s comments were published in an interview with Science Magazine released Wednesday.

The process O’Toole outlined in the Science Magazine article essentially replicates the one conducted five years ago by which DHS determined that it needed the $650 million NBAF to replace the aging level 3 facility at Plum Island, N.Y.

Until Monday, the Obama administration had vocally backed the need for construction of the NBAF, and O’Toole herself had visited the site to reaffirm that support. Napolitano had done the same.

Brownback said he continues to believe that “we’re going to get (the NBAF) done,” but added it will be hard. “When you have a federal government that’s this out of balance, they’re looking at everything,” he said.

While Brownback attributed the change to the project’s rising cost, Science Magazine quoted O’Toole as attributing the administration’s change in position primarily to a decline in the real estate market. She said the government had been planning to sell Plum Island to finance the cost of the NBAF, but determined it could not now do so.

“It’s a really nice island with great beaches, a stone’s throw from Long Island,” O’Toole said.

Last year, Congress provided DHS with $50 million in NBAF funding, $100 million less than had been requested. It also attached a stipulation that none of the $50 million could be spent on construction.

Sen. Pat Roberts, who has been leading the state’s effort in Congress, grilled Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the project’s status during an Ag Committee hearing Wednesday. Roberts won from Vilsack an agreement that the project remains vital to the nation’s agricultural security, but no commitment to lobby for restoration of the NBAF funding.

“My hope is that we can find a way to get this built at some point,” Vilsack said. But he also cited “a lot of work that has to be done” in terms of design before any go-ahead was likely.

Roberts noted that the feds have already sent more than $100 million in design and preparation, and the state of Kansas has committed more that $200 million.

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