Safety clause put in biolab bill

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators are requiring the Homeland Security Department to further study the safety of a foot-and-mouth disease research lab in Manhattan before it can use $32 million provided to build it.

The money is in a Homeland Security Department spending bill considered Wednesday by a House and Senate conference committee, but would only be available to the department after studies prove the lab can operate safely.

Homeland Security Department officials wanted $36 million to start work on the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility they plan for Kansas State University. But there has been opposition to the lab and the foot-and-mouth disease research to be done there, based in part on concerns that an accidental release of the disease would devastate livestock.

The House wanted to withhold all money until a third party studied the lab's safety, while the Senate wanted to give Homeland Security the money and have it do the study. In a compromise, Wednesday's move awards the money but requires the additional study before construction money is released. Some funds will be available to the project for planning purposes.

The compromise spending bill must be approved by the House and Senate before going to the president. Final approval is almost certain.

Negotiators want the Homeland Security Department to study the risks of operating the planned 520,000-square-foot lab, known as NBAF, in Kansas and what would be required to safely operate it.

Kansas lawmakers hailed the agreement as a victory for the facility's placement in Kansas.

"It is a clear indication the Congress understands the importance of building a new lab to protect the nation's food supply and supports moving ahead with construction of the lab in Kansas," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

The Homeland Security Department chose Manhattan for the lab after a competition among several states. The department and Kansas and federal officials have repeatedly said that the lab can be safely operated in the state.

Costs for the lab and transferring of research there are estimated to reach $915 million, with Kansas providing at least $110 million and land for the lab.

A group that tried to lure the site to Texas, one of the finalists for the lab, challenged the selection decision in a lawsuit. Among other things, the Texas group alleged political influence played a role in the selection of the Kansas site and that the Homeland Security Department failed to consider tornado dangers in the state. The lawsuit was dismissed as prematurely filed.

Foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle and swine, was eradicated from the U.S. in 1929. The Kansas lab is intended to replace the aging lab at Plum Island, N.Y., where research has been confined.

Other deadly diseases will be studied at the lab, including diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.

In a July report, the Government Accountability Office criticized an earlier Homeland Security Department study of the risks of relocating the research. The GAO said the department improperly studied the dispersion risk if an accidental release occurred. It also said DHS did not include market response to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in its economic analysis.

DHS has said building the lab on the U.S. mainland will allow for rapid response to animal disease outbreaks.