Local News

Butner lab opponents, backers begin to digest massive U.S. risk report

Posted June 21, 2008 7:10 p.m. EDT
Updated June 21, 2008 9:22 p.m. EDT

— Local reaction is beginning to grow as people concerned with a possible bio-hazard research laboratory in Butner digest a 1,000-page report in which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security analyzed risks that could be associated with such a facility.

Butner, in Granville County, is one of five sites in the nation that are under consideration. across the country. One of the topics the report addresses is potential economic impacts of a release of an organism under study.

Backers and opponents of a Butner lab have been waiting months for the report to come out.

“We've been anxiously awaiting to see what they have to say,” said Bill McKellar, a member of an opposition group called the Granville Non-violent Action Team.

Supporters are studying the report and were expected to comment next week.

Scientists at the lab would study diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. The risks that would come with having such organisms in the Triangle – and how large or small those risks would be – have caught the eyes of many in the region.

“What are the chances of something getting out and how severe are those consequences?” Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said.

Raleigh City Council members have said they want a guarantee no contaminants from the lab could get into the Falls Lake watershed, the city's main water source.

The study says an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars, but it also specifies that the likelihood of an outbreak is very low. Risk-assessment scientists and government officials have long wrestled with public opinion about events that are very unlikely to happen but that could cause major problems if they did.

Many here locally, including some veterinarians from N.C. State University, agree there's little contamination risk. Others aren't convinced.

“By defending what appears to be our backyard, we're defending all of North Carolina, really,” said Elaine McNeill, a lab opponent.

The Department of Homeland Security's Web site says there will be another public hearing in Butner on the proposed lab at the end of July.

The four locations the U.S. is considering in addition to Butner are Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; San Antonio; and Flora, Miss. A sixth alternative would be construction of a new research lab on Plum Island, N.Y., where the work is done now.