Lawmakers: Biolab reaches milestone

TOPEKA — An agreement on developing a new federal biodefense lab in Kansas indicates that the facility will be built and will be safe, members of the state's congressional delegation said Thursday.

Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Lynn Jenkins, speaking on a conference call from Washington, called the agreement to appropriate $32 million and conduct four more reviews on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility a significant event.

"There are hurdles that could happen along the way, but this is certainly a milestone," Brownback said.

The Republicans said the agreement means the Department of Homeland Security can spend $27 million to continue design and planning work on the facility, which will be built in Manhattan. The remaining $5 million will be released once the security studies are complete.

Final votes are needed by the House and Senate to send the bill to President Obama for his signature.

The Department of Homeland Security selected Kansas for the lab in January after a competition among several states. The department and Kansas state 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.

Brownback was one of the negotiators who drafted the agreement. He said the Homeland Security department will be required to study the risks of operating the planned 520,000-square-foot lab. Once complete, the study is to be reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.

Also, the secretaries of the Homeland Security and Agriculture departments must report to congressional committees on what procedures will be used to issue a permit for foot-and-mouth disease research and on an emergency response plan if there is an accidental release, Rep. David Price, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's homeland security subcommittee, said in documents released at a hearing.

Brownback said that all of those requirements must be met before $5 million in construction funds can be spent to begin work on the lab's central utility plant.

"What we wanted to get to is the facility would be built and it would be safe. That's what these studies are targeted at," Brownback said. "If there's things that aren't safe about this, I want to know about it before we get going, and then you change the design to make it safe."

York Duncan, president of the Texas Research Park Foundation, which competed for the facility, said the further study and risk analysis required by the Congress was good for the project "and the safety of our citizenry and the agricultural industry."

"We believe locating the NBAF facility in the heart of 'Tornado Alley' and in the middle of the largest concentration of livestock in the nation is foolish," Duncan said.

He also said staff with the Homeland Security Department's Inspector General's Office had been in San Antonio earlier this week. Several Georgia and Texas lawmakers had asked for an IG investigation of the selection process for the site.

Brownback dismissed those concerns, saying San Antonio experiences as many tornadoes as Manhattan and that the facility will be safe.

The Texas group believes they were treated unfairly because they were unable to secure money that could be used as an incentive to win the site, as Kansas did. Texas' Legislature, which meets every two years, was not in session at the time.

The Texas group sued but their lawsuit was dismissed. Duncan said the group likely will wait to see the outcome of the safety studies before taking any other action.