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Officials Try to Reassure Residents about Bio-Defense Lab

Federal officials met Thursday night with residents to answer their questions about a bio-defense laboratory that might be built in Butner.

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BUTNER, N.C. — Representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security met Thursday night with residents concerned about a bio-defense lab that might be built in Butner.

The department has six places – including Butner – on its short list of sites for a National Bio- and Agro-Defense facility where scientists would study animal diseases and diseases spread from animals to humans.

Supporters say the lab would bring about 1,500 short-term construction jobs, eventually employ up to 500 people and generate $6 billion in the local economy over the next two decades.

Opponents say they are concerned about accidents and human error in a laboratory where scientists will be handling avian flu and mad-cow viruses.

"Catastrophic accidents that could kill people do, in fact, happen," Rev. Bernard Holliday said at the Thursday meeting. "I would like the plan to be terminated, as far as the location here."

"It is impossible to expect that there will not be either a human error that leads to a disease release or a failure of the building's containment system," Kathryn Spann said.

The governing bodies of Raleigh, Creedmoor and Granville County have voted their official opposition to the lab.

Raleigh officials said they feared viruses loosed from the facility could contaminate the headwaters of Falls Lake, the city's primary reservoir.

"We're particularly concerned about Raleigh's drinking water supply, just because of this discharge that would be coming out," said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for N.C.

Government officials sought to reassure residents that the state-of-the-art facility will be safe. They stressed the appeal for researchers of Butner's proximity to Research Triangle Park and universities with strong agriculture and veterinary programs.

"A lot of biotech, biomanufacturing companies here, the University of North Carolina, Duke, and N.C. State('s) vet school – all those factors made this location an attractive site," Jaime Johnson, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said.

Other finalists for the facility are:

  • Flora Industrial Park, Madison County, Miss.
  • Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan.
  • Texas Research Park, San Antonio, Texas
  • University of Georgia/South Milledge Avenue, Athens, Ga.
  • Plum Island, Massachusetts

Homeland Security is expected to choose a site in the fall. If Butner is selected, the lab could be operating by 2013.

Another community meeting is scheduled for June. Homeland Security officials will go over an environmental impact statement then.