Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss may have been the least important official in the conga line of high-ranking politicos, university übermen and bioscience bigwigs who attended a public hearing last month to entreat the Department of Homeland Security to site a federal germ lab in nearby Butner. Yet his words may have been the most important of the evening.
As Moss sat among the more than 400 people jammed into Southern Granville High School auditorium that night, his conscience began nagging him.
"I cannot say that I support this initiative," Moss calmly told the crowd. "I'm really struggling. I made some commitments to support it, and I'm going back on my word, to some extent."
Moss' statement stunned hundreds of well-heeled boosters of the $450 million National Bio and Agro Defense Facility, a high-level lab that will research some of the world's deadliest diseases.
As mayor of Creedmoor, a town of 3,000 known for its pottery near the Wake-Granville county line, Moss was the only elected official to oppose the project.
"My thoughts were to support it and go along with the rest of the crowd," he said in an interview the next morning. "But I sat there and looked at my neighbors and knew their concerns. I'm not a senator; I'm the mayor of a very small town. I have to live here and see these people every day. I couldn't in good conscience support it."
This week, Moss is asking the Creedmoor Town Council to pass a resolution opposing NBAF, as the lab is known.
The state-owned Umstead Research Farm in Butner is one of five U.S. sites contending for the lab, which will likely replace the aging Plum Island Animal Research Center, located off the tip of Long Island Sound. Plum Island, which was managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1950 to 2002, when it transferred authority to Homeland Security, has been plagued with security and safety breaches and managerial incompetence.
An Oct. 4 congressional hearing on the proliferation of these high-level labs—and recent accidents at them—raised additional disturbing questions about their safety and oversight. (See sidebar on page 7.)
Nonetheless, the N.C. Consortium, a large group of elected officials, university, biotech and agri-business leaders, has assured skeptics that the new lab will be safe.
Granville County residents, especially those living in Butner, already live with unknown dangers. They mow their yards only to discover unexploded ordnance, remnants from when the town was a World War II training camp. Three blocks from Central Avenue, Butner's main drag, lurks an abandoned Superfund site, whose chromium fumes used to hover over downtown. The company, Athol, burned its toxic waste near the entrance of one of the proposed tracts for NBAF.
Over the past 20 years, a group of scrappy, well-organized activists, including the Granville Non-Violent Action Team (GNAT), have defeated repeated government attempts to place undesirable projects in their neighborhoods: an atomic-particle super-collider in the late '80, a hazardous waste incinerator in 1990, and a low-level radiation waste facility in 1995.
"We went through this 20 years ago with the incinerator, and the people of Granville County fought it tooth and nail," GNAT member John Pike said at the Sept. 18 public hearing. "It will happen again. Hell hath no fury like a county dumped on twice."
But the battle against NBAF will test the strength of their activism. Some Granville County residents, enticed by the economic carrot, support the lab. And unlike previous smaller-scale projects, in taking on NBAF, a high-level Biosafety Level 4 facility coveted for its cachet in university and biotech research, activists are battling politically powerful forces: the Department of Homeland Security, the Triangle's entire congressional delegation, the state's lucrative biotech and agriculture industries and North Carolina's public university system, headed by well-connected UNC President Erskine Bowles.
"There are things I'd like to say to the members of Department of Homeland Security here tonight," Bowles fawned at the public forum. "Thank you for your service to our country. If you choose North Carolina we will do everything to make you proud of your decision."
In 2006, shortly after it was announced that North Carolina officials would try to woo the lab, Moss urged Granville County Commissioners to be circumspect about the economic promises—purportedly $1.65 billion—and health and environmental risks associated with NBAF. Moss said he subsequently received a phone call from a miffed Leon Turner, the county's economic development director. Moss was also contacted by N.C. State University associate professor Barrett Slenning, an N.C. Consortium member who, Moss said, gave him a "personal, detailed briefing," and U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, whose district includes southern Granville County, and who spoke in favor of the lab at the public hearing.
"He called to ask me questions about what I was thinking," Moss said. "I think he was trying to tell me what to think."
Miller, who also was initially concerned about NBAF, confirms he contacted several political leaders, but added, "I've done nothing to pressure anyone about this."
Slenning says he simply wants to present the facts, adding that some activists outside of Granville County are spreading misinformation.
"If people are working off the facts and still don't like it, I'll be fine with that. It would be unfortunate if people accept misinformation as fact and we miss a really good opportunity, and your grandchildren will say, 'You mean that could have been here?'"
GNAT organizer Bill McKellar, a pharmacist at Quality Drugs in Butner, said he's received calls from Slenning, Bowles' office and Granville County Manager Brian Alligood—all asking for private meetings with his group to explain the lab's purported safety and substantial economic benefits to the area.
McKellar has declined to meet privately and remains unconvinced, particularly in light of the safety risks. "Maybe they'll hire a few guards and custodians, but the people working inside won't come from here."
"We want it to be a public meeting," added Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, who lives in southern Granville County. "We don't want a private meeting, a dog-and-pony show."
The controversy has garnered attention from beyond Granville County, including opposition from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League based in Saxapahaw in Alamance County. Raleigh leaders are concerned, too. The city lies just 30 minutes south of Butner, and the lab would be located in the Falls Lake watershed; Falls Lake is the drinking water source for 350,000 Wake County residents. Raleigh Public Utilities Director Dale Crisp sent the N.C. Consortium 40 questions about the lab's engineering, water monitoring, security and emergency response plan. And at a September Raleigh City Council meeting, Councilor Tommy Craven noted the site is so close to Raleigh's water supply "the possible catastrophic consequences of this facility need to be carefully considered."
DHS will base its site selection in part on community acceptance. However, that doesn't mean a lack of support from Granville activists will derail the project.
"Community acceptance is broader than what would be a typical view," Slenning said. He added that in the Federal Register notice seeking proposals and requirements for the lab, DHS mentions that stakeholders include "biotech, academia, local and state government as well as the local community."
That local community includes the developmentally disabled residents of the Murdoch Center and patients at Umstead State Psychiatric Hospital; both facilities are near the proposed NBAF site. "These are the most vulnerable people," said psychologist Ann Louise Barrick, a Granville County resident. "If something happened during third shift, they have the fewest staff. There are physically very frail people. How would you evacuate them?"
The North Carolina Consortium lobbying to bring the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility to Butner has assured the public that it will be safe, but recent congressional testimony raised serious questions about the risks associated with these high-level research labs.
On Oct. 4, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations heard sworn testimony that the federal government doesn't know the number or location of high-level research labs in the United States. And no federal agency is responsible for determining the risks associated with the proliferation of these Biosafety Level 3 and 4 labs, which study the world's deadliest diseases, including those that infect animals and humans.
NBAF, as it's known, would house BSL-3 and -4 labs. The Department of Homeland Security would likely manage it.
However, DHS' involvement doesn't guarantee a lab's safety from accidents, even terrorist attacks.
"The more BSL-4 labs there are, the more opportunity for mistakes and the more opportunities for release," testified Keith Rhodes of the Government Accountability Office, the investigational arm of Congress.
Because of federal registration requirements, it's easier to track BSL-4 labs, the number of which has increased from two to 15 since 1990, largely because of the threat of global terrorism and the spread of emerging infectious diseases. Yet there are at least 1,300 BSL-3 facilities, many of them presumably operating under the government's radar because they are privately owned and operated.
The proliferation of BSL-3 and -4 labs adds to the overall risk of an accidental or intentional release or accident, according to the GAO.
"There is a baseline risk associated with any high-containment lab, attributable to human errors," Rhodes testified. "With this expansion, the risk will increase. The associated safety and security risks will be greater for new labs with less experience."
Labs such as NBAF that handle "select agents," including foot-and-mouth disease, Nipah virus and Rift Valley fever, must register with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But according to federal agency officials cited by the GAO, the oversight of these labs is "fragmented and relies on self-policing. High-risk labs have health risks for individual lab workers as well as the surrounding community. The risks due to accidental exposure or release can never be completely eliminated, and even labs within sophisticated biological research programs, including those most extensively regulated, have had and will continue to have safety failures."
An example of such a failure occurred at Texas A&M University, which was shuttered by the CDC earlier this year after a watchdog group, the Sunshine Project, discovered that in February 2006, a lab worker had become seriously ill from brucella, and several employees tested positive for exposure to other germs. The university failed to report the incidents, and although the CDC conducted a routine inspection of the lab that same month, it failed to cite the university for the breach.
"Even for select agents there may be a significant underreporting of incidents," Rhodes testified. "And the inspections are not as thorough as one might hope. —Lisa Sorg