The Department of Homeland Security withheld documents about the proposed National Bio and Agro Defense Facility from congressional members and investigators, prompting a House committee chairman to call its actions "unacceptable and grossly improper."
U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, lambasted the agency, stating "I want to know why DHS thinks it is above the law."
In addition, testimony revealed that DHS relied on a flawed study to justify moving the proposed federal disease research lab to the mainland United States, raising serious questions about the project's transparency and accuracy.
DHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have proposed building the $450 billion NBAF at one of five U.S. sites, including nearby Butner. The lab would study some of the world's most deadly animal diseases, including the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease that affects cattle, pigs and sheep. By law, that virus can be studied only at Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off the tip of Long Island, where it has been contained since 1955. However, the recent Farm Bill, which Congress passed, authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to allow the virus to be imported to the mainland United States.
The lab would also study diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.Nancy Kingsbury, a research expert with the Government Accountability Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, testified May 22 that DHS refused to turn over documents pertaining to the draft environmental impact studies required from each proposed NBAF site. Those studies are due to be released to the public next month, but the GAO generally has access to such documents before that time. DHS justified their withholding saying they contained "proprietary information."
"Under our rules of access there is no basis for this," Kingsbury testified. "I don't believe they are proprietary."
She also testified that DHS has failed to quickly provide other documents to the GAO and delayed an investigatory trip to Plum Island for six weeks.
As for the reasoning behind moving the lab to the mainland, Kingsbury told the committee that DHS justified that recommendation based on a flawed 2002 USDA study. "The research was selective in what it considered," she said, adding it didn't address how to manage large numbers of infected animals, nor did it consider the history of outbreaks in other countries.
There has not been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States since 1929, likely from natural sources, but the virus has been accidentally released from laboratories in the United Kingdom, resulting the destruction of thousands of animals and a ban on meat exports. A Canadian lab conducts research on the virus, but it is located in an urban area, far from farmland.
DHS apparently ignored the study's conclusion that considering the cost of the environmental cleanup at Plum Island, it made sense to keep the lab there.
U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) said, "The GAO report is troubling to me. There is no study of the safety; it's mind-boggling. I'm flummoxed as to why this decision has gone on."
While a release can happen at any laboratory, Kingsbury said additional risks comes from a facility's proximity to livestock, farms and other populated areas. Plum Island has no livestock, except those being experimented on, and the deer that swim the channel to the island are shot.
"Most experts we interviewed have said the island provides an additional layer of protection," she said.
In prepared testimony, Jay Cohen, an undersecretary of Homeland Security, said "While there is always a risk of human error ... the redundancies built into modern research laboratory designs and the latest biosecurity and containment systems ... effectively minimizes these risks."
U.S. Rep. Charles Pickering Jr., a Republican from Mississippi, one of the proposed sites, and representatives from the Kansas delegation lobbying DHS to locate the lab in their state downplayed the risks posed by the lab.
"Cattlemen and farmers in Mississippi and Louisiana think this can be done safely," Pickering said.