- Photo by Rex Miller
- The Umstead Research Farm near Butner is owned by the state. About 240 acres is is being considered for the federal lab.
"We've all seen the same movies—a government lab in your backyard. Movies with conspiracy theories. It sounds scary."
Comparing the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to a horror flick: That's how U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico tried to appease concerns about the federal disease laboratory that could be built in Butner.
However, the scenario unfolding in North Carolina is not a Saturday matinee, but reality.
The NBAF would study some of the world's most lethal diseases that, according to Homeland Security's own documents, if accidentally or intentionally released, could economically and environmentally devastate not only North Carolina, but possibly the entire Southeast or beyond.
And while federal officials and NBAF proponents emphasize the risk of an accident is "extremely low," the lab would be run by Homeland Security, the under-staffed, ill-prepared government agency with a documented track record of financial and managerial incompetence.
Finally, North Carolina taxpayers could foot the bill for the tens of millions of dollars in roads, sewers, electric and gas lines and a utility plant required to support the operation.
In return, this is what the state would get: 63 permanent jobs directly related to the lab that would go to local residents; the promise of scientific prestige; potential, but not certain, spinoff industries to the biotech and academic community; and several million dollars in annual tax revenue (although that amount varies depending on whom you ask).
Now, after more than two years of meetings, documents and studies, it is game time. Released late one Friday afternoon in June, the NBAF Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is an opus comparing the pros and cons of the final six locations in contention. It also evaluates the potential risks and benefits to health, safety and the environment at each site. And although Homeland Security contends it has not decided where or if the lab will be built, by the 1,000th page it looks like Butner, despite its lack of infrastructure, has accumulated enough plusses to be a contender among contenders.
After the last public hearing July 29, there are just three weeks until the final comment period ends. By that time, not only citizens, but also local governments and elected officials, many of whom have skillfully dodged taking a stance on the NBAF, will need to speak up.
In a prepared statement, the N.C. Consortium, well-connected, powerful backers of the lab, lauded the "comprehensive and detailed" DEIS. Yet, there are glaring omissions and contradictions that raise many questions about the lab's operation, security and preparation to deal with a worst-case scenario. And Homeland Security doesn't know all the answers.
In an interview this week with the Indy, Verrico was asked several questions about the lab's operation and security. He is scheduled to be among several agency employees who will answer questions from the public at next week's meeting.
The Indy: "The 2007 feasibility study lists 10 diseases that would be studied at the lab, including bird flu [which can be transmissible to humans] and Newcastle disease. Why does the DEIS omit these and have only eight?"
Verrico: "The eight diseases in the DEIS are the ones we're looking to study. I don't know why the other study listed 10."
The Indy: "There is a discussion of aerial spraying of insecticides 'for an extended period of time' if an infected mosquito should get out of the lab. Where and how long would the spraying be conducted? Would there be spraying before the lab opens, to start clean, so to speak?"
Verrico: "I don't have the answer. It wouldn't make sense to spray before the lab opens because there are no animals present and infected inside the facility."
The Indy: "There is no mention of how the security would work at the lab."
Verrico: "That would be a separate study. And there's only so much we can tell you about security. We'll be as transparent as we can without compromising security. There are things we can and can't tell you. But we're not going to be studying things you don't know about."
There is a lot more we don't know about. The DEIS lays out, in gory detail, how an outbreak could occur, whom the diseases would affect, and their symptoms. The document estimates the economic costs—in the billions, counting agricultural losses and human health care expenses—and possible methods to rein in an outbreak.
Yet the report, on the basis of which citizens and government officials are expected to form an opinion, is short on many important specifics.
For example, the DEIS doesn't detail standard procedures to deal with an outbreak, stating only that the protocol would be "publicly accepted" before the lab opens.
"We would do public outreach so folks would understand why they don't need to panic," Verrico said. "What things they need to do to keep themselves and their livestock safe."
Nor does the DEIS pinpoint how the lab would dispose of infected animal carcasses used in experiments. (However, it does forecast the impacts, such as additional air emissions, from disposal methods.) Incineration and tissue digestion—essentially, liquefying the remains using chemicals—could be used "in combination," Verrico said. However, in the 1980s, Granville County activists, including some current lab opponents, successfully beat back a proposed hazardous waste incinerator; it is unlikely that another would pass muster.
While the lab would be responsible for sterilizing and pretreating its wastewater, questions also linger about South Granville Water and Sewer Authority's ability to handle an additional 25 million gallons per year. The DEIS does not mention SGWASA's fines or violations as possible drawbacks, even though since 2003, the state's Division of Water Quality fined the authority $27,000 for discharging polluted wastewater into the already-polluted Knap of Reeds Creek. The creek flows into Falls Lake, Raleigh's primary drinking water source. SGWASA would be charged with monitoring NBAF's compliance with wastewater standards, something the authority has failed to consistently do with its other industrial customers.
As for Homeland Security, this is not the first time it has failed to conduct a thorough analysis of a proposal. U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat who represents Durham, Orange and parts of Wake and Chatham counties, has written language into the Homeland Security appropriations bill that would withhold funding for the design and construction of the NBAF until a study of the risks of foot and mouth disease is completed; the previous one was flawed. Homeland Security would conduct the study; the Government Accountability Office, the investigational arm of Congress, would evaluate it.
However, Price has remained neutral on the NBAF, consistently remarking that it would be an asset to Triangle's scientific community and a necessity for national security. At a town hall meeting earlier this month, Price, who chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said he would not "develop a firm opinion about it until the facts are in. I have an open mind. Wherever it is simply has to be safe and secure."
This week, Price told the Indy that while the concerns about the agency's track record are "legitimate," he is also counting on the "relevant experience" of state government and universities in operating high-security labs; yet none of the labs is a BSL-4, the highest-containment classification, which will be housed at NBAF.
University and government labs have had accidents, although none resulting in disease outbreaks. According to the DEIS' review of "biocontainment lapses and laboratory-acquired infections," the number is small, considering the time employees spend in the labs. However, the DEIS acknowledges it's difficult to collect accurate data on infections because of "an indifference to, and frequently, an unwillingness to report" them.
Of the 35 incidents at high-security labs listed in the DEIS, dating to 1981, nearly half occurred at universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2005, an exhaust fan failed in a high-security lab containing a strain of tuberculosis. Audible alarms on the cabinets and air pressure monitors had been turned off. "A loss of primary and secondary biocontainment occurred," although there was no reported infections or outbreaks.
It is true that Butner's proximity to research facilities such as RTP and area universities makes it a favorable location. And in comparing the final sites, the DEIS has determined the cumulative environmental effects would be "minor" in Butner, as well as Manhattan, Kan., and Athens, Ga., and "moderate" in San Antonio, Texas and Flora, Miss. The sixth location option is to keep it at Plum Island off Long Island.
Nonetheless, community acceptance is a critical component in Homeland Security's decision. The N.C. Consortium recently received more than $260,000 in public funds, part of which would be used to hire a public relations firm to conduct an "informational" campaign to achieve just that.
Meanwhile, opposition has largely come from citizens' groups and Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss, the first public official to speak against the NBAF. This week, State Auditor Les Merritt, who as a member of the Council of State would vote on whether to deed the state land to the federal government for the lab, told the Indy via e-mail that he has "grave concerns over choosing to house highly contagious diseases in close proximity to one of North Carolina's growing metropolitan areas. ... When this issue comes before the Council of State, I will take a long, hard look at the risks to North Carolina's population centers and livestock before I make a decision."
In addition to citizen opposition or support, statements like Merritt's hold weight with Homeland Security. Verrico said: "We're not going to go where people don't want us."