Political News

North Carolina apparently loses in bid for $450M biodefense lab

Posted December 3, 2008 10:44 a.m. EST
Updated December 3, 2008 3:32 p.m. EST

— The federal government has recommended a site in Kansas for a new $450 million laboratory to study biological threats like anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease, congressional lawmakers and staff said Wednesday.

The Department of Homeland Security's choice of Manhattan, Kan., beat out intense competition from other sites in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.

North Carolina had offered a package of incentives built around a site near Butner, N.C. However, a number of local groups and citizens lobbied against the project. Several county and local governments also voiced opposition, citing environmental and health concerns.

As more and more local politicians joined opponents of the proposed lab,  the federal government didn't react favorably.

"Your message has been received and the message has been that you don't support us coming here," DHS spokesman John Verrico told WRAL News in August as opposition mounted.

Also in September, one of the best chances to secure the lab fell apart when the North Carolina Biotechnology Center rejected a grant from Golden LEAF, the foundation that distributes economic development grants from the state's tobacco litigation settlement.

The $262,000 involved would have paid for efforts by the Biotech Center and its bio-lab allies to prepare an education campaign about the lab. The Biotech Center said Golden LEAF’s terms for the grant were unreasonable, and Golden LEAF countered by saying it needed to ensure any promotional campaign was factual.

Agency official revealed their decision to several lawmakers late Tuesday, according to lawmakers and staff familiar with the briefings. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement won't be made until later this week, when the agency releases an environmental impact statement.

The choice won't become final until sometime after a 30-day period for comments on the decision, which could face legal challenges from losing states.

The new lab would replace an aging, 24-acre research complex on Plum Island, about four miles off the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y. Foot-and-mouth research has been confined to the island since 1955 to avoid an accidental outbreak that could lead to the slaughter of millions of livestock if they became infected. The disease does not sicken humans.

Some farm groups have expressed concern about the risks of moving the lab to the U.S. mainland. The Bush administration acknowledged earlier this year that accidents have happened with the feared virus at the Plum Island facility.

However, DHS officials say they are convinced the agency can operate safely using the latest containment procedures. Kansas officials are focused on the $3.5 billion economic infusion the lab could mean for the local economy.

The lab is expected to generate about 1,500 construction jobs and a permanent payroll of $25 million to $30 million for more than 300 employees once the project is completed by 2015.

The state mounted one of the most aggressive efforts to win the new lab, forming a special task force to lobby DHS officials after Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., promoted its economic potential.

The Kansas Legislature approved $105 million in bonds to buy land, upgrade roads, install a security fence and build a utility plant at the site on the Kansas State University campus. The university already conducts similar research at its Biosecurity Research Institute, near the proposed site of the new lab.

Besides foot-and-mouth disease, researchers also would study African swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever and the Hendra and Nipah viruses.

Other finalist sites were Flora, Miss.; Athens, Ga.; and San Antonio, Texas.