MANHATTAN, Kansas - Deadly diseases, terrorism threats and top-secret government research may sound like the plot for a best-selling novel. They actually make up the story line for a research lab operated by the Department of Homeland Security.
And now the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), billed as the only lab of its kind in the world, is about to clear the last hurdle before it comes to the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan.
The research lab will replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center , a facility with a controversial and mysterious past. Up until now, the research at Plum Island has been considered so dangerous, it has been banned to its off-shore location near the coast of Long Island.
However, the government believes it is time to break new ground, moving the lab off the island, and into the Midwest.
What is NBAF?
The future site of NBAF is located at the heart of K-State’s campus. Right now, the planned piece of land is only marked by an inconspicuous sign.
When the facility is complete, scientists will study the deadliest animal diseases in the world and attempt to develop vaccines against them.
The mission statement of NBAF says it will be responsible “to protect the nation’s animal agriculture and public health from foreign and emerging biological threats.”
Chosen among several other locations around the country, the research lab is an economic windfall for the region. Construction of the facility will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and create high-paying federal jobs.
The 500,000-square-foot center will be built around K-State’s existing Biosecurity Research Institute , where training and study of animal diseases already takes place.
“We need to be serious about combating infectious animal diseases that ultimately could cause grave harm to human health and devastate our economy,” said Chad Bettes of the Kansas Bioscience Authority.
Bettes said Manhattan, Kansas, was chosen because of the area’s expertise in animal health research, the existing infrastructure, preparedness to conduct research safely and strong statewide support, most notably from Sen. Pat Roberts.
Plum Island’s mysterious past
Because of its remote location and restricted access to the general public, rumors about what happens inside Plum Island’s walls have persisted for decades.
The disease center is controlled by the Department of Homeland Security, with research conducted by scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is the only place in the nation where the highly-contagious foot-and-mouth disease can be legally studied.
The lab, built in the 1950s, is considered outdated and in need of replacement. Because of its location off the coast of Long Island, Plum Island is also viewed as a vulnerable target for terrorists.
In 2003, the Government Accountability Office found a number of security concerns and has since issued several follow-up reports about how their recommendations are being implemented.
Plum Island also has an alleged history of biological warfare experiments conducted during the Cold War. It is rumored to be where Lyme disease originated.
Author Michael Carroll explored some of these theories in his 2004 book, "Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory".
In October, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura also raised safety concerns when he featured Plum Island in TruTV's television show, “ Conspiracy Theory ".
Opposition to a lab located in the “beef belt”
Tom Manney, a professor emeritus at K-State who taught physics and researched biology, was the leader of a group that opposed the lab coming to Kansas. The group maintained a website called, “No NBAF in Kansas.”
Manney said he has strong reservations about bringing the research lab to the “beef belt.”
He points to a 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain that forced officials to kill seven million sheep and cattle.
In 2007, the disease spread in the UK again, this time blamed on a sewer leak at a nearby bio lab.
Plum Island’s checkered past includes a foot-and-mouth leak in 1978. It was contained thanks to the island location.
In Kansas, an outbreak is estimated to have a potential economic impact of at least $4 billion.
“That would just shut down all exports of beef,” said Manney. “The devastation of an outbreak economically for all these people would just be total. The risk may be small, but it’s not that small.”
Ranchers react to safety questions
Brandon New, a rancher in Leavenworth, said Kansas would be affected by a foot-and-mouth outbreak, regardless of whether it happens in his own pasture or somewhere else in the country.
For more than 50 years, his family has operated Newhaven Angus. The health of his cattle is his top priority. Still, New believes the benefits of the research outweigh the risks.
“Is it a concern? Yes,” said New. “But I wouldn’t get any sleep if I worried about everything that could go wrong.”
The Kansas Livestock Association provided