Kansas officials on Monday backed President Donald Trump’s plan to change which federal agency controls a biodefense laboratory complex under construction in this college town.
The National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, remains on track to start operating in 2022 or 2023. And the $1.25 billion project, controlled by the Department for Homeland Security, is still on budget, officials said.
On the eve of the 17th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Kansas lawmakers toured the facility, which will aid efforts to prepare for agro-terrorism.
Construction is 65 percent complete, officials said. The state-of-the-art facility, located near Kansas State University’s football stadium, will research how to protect the nation’s food supply. The idea is to boost the country’s ability to identify diseases, develop vaccines and train veterinarians.
Trump this year proposed handing over operational control of the facility to the Department of Agriculture, an idea that has generated some concern. But state and federal officials support the planned bureaucratic changeover.
“We plan at DHS to continue to work with USDA so we’ll have a very smooth transition after construction,” Nielsen told reporters after touring the site.
The White House proposed turning over operational control as part of its budget plan released in February. Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, a Democrat, has expressed alarm that the facility could face cuts if it is placed into the USDA’s budget.
“Keep in mind, (USDA) has crop insurance and food assistance programs that always generate intense interest and questions when it comes to budgeting. Will NABF face operational cuts in order to satisfy those other legitimate needs?” Carlin wrote shortly after the proposal was announced.
Nielsen and members of the Kansas congressional delegation toured the NBAF site Monday. The tour was closed to reporters, but the officials answered questions afterward.
Sen. Jerry Moran said handing over operational control to USDA wouldn’t change the mission of the NBAF in any way. He said both agencies have close working relationships.
“That’s been a significant part of the plan since the beginning. The question is who retains legal ownership and Homeland Security and Department of Agriculture have been working very closely together,” Sen. Jerry Moran said.
Moran also said he has been encouraging USDA to hire employees for the facility so that the project stays on schedule after construction.
Sen. Pat Roberts described the facility as a “dual kind of mission” between the agencies.
“It isn’t an either-or thing,”Roberts said.
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue toured the facility in May. He told The Manhattan Mercury during the visit that Homeland Security officials in 2017 asked USDA to become the primary managers of the facility.
“They recognize I think that the USDA really is more into research and operation of these type of facilities,” Perdue told the newspaper.
The facility has been in the works since 1999, when it was initially projected to cost $95 million.
The cost rose as the facility’s mission expanded and the decision was made to fortify buildings against the strongest tornadoes as well as prevent the escape of dangerous pathogens.
Nielsen said she was impressed by how the facility’s security is being “built right in” as construction continues.
The NBAF will be “impressively constructed,” she said.
Asked the $1.25 billion price tag, officials emphasized the importance of preparing for and preventing potential threats to agriculture.
“It is an expensive investment, but the future is priceless and the investment here is well worth it,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, who chairs the subcommittee that’s responsible for homeland security funding.
Kansas is contributing about $300 million toward the project.
K-State President Richard Myers predicted the facility will attract firms that conduct their own agricultural and disease research. Companies are locating in the area that would not have otherwise come, he said.
“It will mean a lot for not just Manhattan, and not just Kansas, but for the region,” Myers said.