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With land transferred, backers look ahead to groundbreaking…but where’s the cash?

By Bryan Richardson

Confidence is high among the state’s congressional delegation about the eventual arrival of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF).

Gov. Sam Brownback and delegation members announced Wednesday that the state had transferred the site of the biosafety-level four facility to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The land transfer allows DHS to proceed with construction when it sees fit. The $80 million needed to build the central utilities plant has been in place but unused due to DHS not having ownership of the land.

Congressional delegation members said they expect a construction contract to be awarded for that portion of the facility this month, and for a groundbreaking ceremony to happen in February or March.

First District Rep. Tim Huelskamp said DHS already knows the company they want to handle construction, but the much-delayed land transfer held up the process. “They had to have the land transfer before they could award the construction contract,” he said.

Despite the confidence of Huelskamp and others, there are still uncertainties going forward.

At least publicly, DHS officials haven’t said much about what this latest step means for NBAF. That silence includes not publicly stating whether the awarding of a construction contract and groundbreaking will occur within the next few months.

“Timelines associated with NBAF are pending on-going Congressional action on future funding for this and other activities,” Matt Chandler, a DHS media relations staffer, said in an email.

Other unanswered questions include any assurance that starting the central utilities plant construction means the rest of NBAF will be built, and whether construction will take place as previously designed or on a smaller scale.

A National Research Council committee released a report about the latter issue during the summer. DHS commissioned the NRC panel to consider three options: build NBAF as currently designed, build a smaller-scale NBAF or keep the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in operation.

The report did not make a recommendation, although the committee considered it imperative for the U.S. to have a biosafety-level four large animal research facility on its own soil.

Homeland Security has been taking steps to move forward with the sale of Plum Island.

Sen. Pat Roberts agrees with DHS officials who have maintained that Plum doesn’t meet standards for high biocontainment laboratories. “Any one of my colleagues who visits the decaying Plum Island knows that this funding is a priority,” Roberts said.

Huelskamp said the start of construction will be a strong message to Washington. With the beginning of the project, he said Congress will see that DHS is serious about finishing the project.

Ron Trewyn, Kansas State vice president for research, believes the start of actual construction would make NBAF’s completion close to a certainty.

“There have certainly been some labs that have been planned and never started,” he said. “I’m not aware of any that have started and haven’t been completed.”

If the facility wasn’t completed, money woes would be a likely cause. As has been the case through the facility’s progression from a $450 million project to one exceeding $1 billion, the financial situation is a big uncertainty.

Nearly a year ago, the project experienced its first major trouble when President Barack Obama left out NBAF funding in his proposed budget and called for DHS to reassess the project.

Since that time, the House voted to approve a DHS appropriations bill that included $75 million toward NBAF construction. But that money hasn’t cleared the Senate.

Congress still has to address the desire being raised by its members to reduce government spending. It’s anyone’s guess whether that process could affect NBAF funding.

A sequestration process that calls for across-the-board cuts to government programs was scheduled to occur Jan. 1, but the deadline was pushed back to March 1 after the taxpayer relief bill passage.

The sequestration cuts include a 9.4 percent spending reduction for non-exempt defense discretionary funding, which includes research and development.

Roberts said the Congressional delegation is “working overtime” to ensure that the money will arrive. “DHS has to spend the tens of millions of dollars already appropriated for NBAF construction,” Roberts said. “This should buy us time and allow construction to go forward until Congress can deal with the sequester and funding for 2013 and beyond.”

Huelskamp said Congress will be more comfortable appropriating more money when DHS starts to spend the previous money. “It is difficult to convince Washington to appropriate when we haven’t used our other appropriation money,” he said. “We have appropriations from fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012.”

DHS has five years to use appropriated funds, the first of which came in the fiscal year 2010 DHS appropriations bill that contained $32 million for the lab.

The FY 2011 appropriations bill contained $40 million for the utility lab and required the state to provide $40 million in matching funds.

The FY 2012 appropriations bill contained $50 million. DHS used $15 million of that money for design updates, which leaves $35 million for construction.

In 2011, when the project was still estimated to cost $650 million, the delegation anticipated getting $150 million appropriations for four fiscal years to fund construction.

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