Conspiracy Theorists’ Favorite Lab Is Moving to Kansas

The biological research facility at Plum Island, thought by some to have propagated Lyme disease, is relocating at a cost of more than $1 billion.

There have been many stories told about the facility on Plum Island over the years. Now, it is moving to Kansas.
National Journal
Billy House
Jan. 29, 2014, 11:42 a.m.

The stor­ies about Plum Is­land, an un­re­mark­able 3-mile strip off the coast of Long Is­land that has long played home to the Plum Is­land An­im­al Dis­ease Cen­ter, are the stuff of com­ic books and hor­ror movies.

Dur­ing the cold war, folks said it was home to a secret bio­lo­gic­al weapons pro­gram in­volving a former Nazi sci­ent­ist. Years later, it was blamed for the spread of Lyme dis­ease (which was named for a town in nearby Con­necti­c­ut). The lat­ter claim was so per­sist­ent that the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity still re­futes it on its web­site.

Plum Is­land has also been the set­ting for a nov­el and the sub­ject of the TV show Con­spir­acy The­ory With Jesse Ven­tura, and it even got a shout-out from fic­tion­al bo­gey­man Han­ni­bal Lecter in The Si­lence of the Lambs. “Sounds charm­ing,” he said of the place.

Now, the gov­ern­ment is spend­ing more than $1 bil­lion to move the lab, which stud­ies swine flu, foot-and-mouth dis­ease, and oth­er live­stock ail­ments, from New York to Man­hat­tan, Kan. — and the talk is start­ing again.

The pro­ject, which re­ceived $404 mil­lion in the latest ap­pro­pri­ations bill, has al­tern­ately been de­scribed as a vi­tal gov­ern­ment pri­or­ity, an “ear­mark­ish” piece of pork, an eco­nom­ic boost to the loc­als, and a bio­lo­gic­al danger to a rur­al com­munity, de­pend­ing on who is do­ing the talk­ing. It’s a ster­ling re­mind­er that there is more than one way to view a gov­ern­ment ex­pendit­ure.

As elec­ted of­fi­cials from Kan­sas tell it, mov­ing what is now called the Na­tion­al Bio and Agro-De­fense Fa­cil­ity from the 843-acre, off-lim­its cam­pus on Plum Is­land to a site ad­ja­cent to Kan­sas State Uni­versity rep­res­ents a huge eco­nom­ic vic­tory.

“This in­vest­ment means Kan­sas will be­come a re­search epi­cen­ter, and the con­struc­tion of this mod­ern, world-class fa­cil­ity will ul­ti­mately cre­ate jobs for Kansans in the fields of en­gin­eer­ing, sci­ence and tech­no­logy,” crowed Sen. Jerry Mor­an in a re­lease after the fund­ing was ap­pro­pri­ated.

A re­port in 2012 es­tim­ated that the new lab will have roughly 326 per­man­ent em­ploy­ees and sup­port some 757 con­struc­tion jobs, and that the fa­cil­ity is ex­pec­ted to have a $3.5 bil­lion eco­nom­ic im­pact on Kan­sas in the first 20 years alone. The state has also com­mit­ted to this pro­ject by con­trib­ut­ing $202 mil­lion.

“Many mem­bers of the Kan­sas Con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion have worked tire­lessly on this for many years,” Kan­sas Gov. Sam Brown­back said in a re­lease.

But not every­one is smil­ing.

For those who op­pose the re­lo­ca­tion, news of the fund­ing rep­res­en­ted the in­ev­it­ab­il­ity that one of the world’s largest “germ labs,” as they de­scribe it, will be loc­ated in their com­munity, in the heart of cattle and ag­ri­cul­tur­al land.

Bill Dor­sett, of the group No NBAF in Kan­sas, said Monday that the fund­ing was not ne­ces­sar­ily a sur­prise, but it was a “dis­ap­point­ment.” He said he and oth­er op­pon­ents still con­tend re­search on deadly an­im­al patho­gens should re­main in isol­a­tion, prefer­ably on an is­land off the main­land — like the one the lab sat upon for roughly 60 years.

An­oth­er act­iv­ist, Thomas Man­ney, a pro­fess­or emer­it­us from KSU’s de­part­ment of phys­ics and di­vi­sion of bio­logy, raised con­cerns that the loc­a­tion of the lab will put it in­side “tor­nado al­ley.”

“Around here, the uni­versity sci­ent­ists and ad­min­is­trat­ors are gen­er­ally viewed in very high re­gard, so when they tell poli­cy­makers and the press that it is safe and im­port­ant, they are per­suas­ive,” Man­ney said. But he ad­ded, “Pub­lic ex­pres­sion of dis­sent by sci­ent­ists who are will­ing to speak out has been ef­fect­ively dis­cour­aged by the uni­versity. Most have not been will­ing.”

In­deed, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­know­ledged in 2008 there have been ac­ci­dents at the fa­cil­ity, in­clud­ing one in 1978 in­volving the re­lease of highly con­ta­gious foot-and-mouth dis­ease in­to cattle-hold­ing pens on Plum Is­land. As a res­ult, the lab in­sti­tuted more strin­gent bio-con­tain­ment meas­ures.

The lab is also a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ism tar­get. Plum Is­land was on a list of tar­gets found when a Mas­sachu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy gradu­ate work­ing as a sci­ent­ist for al-Qaida was cap­tured in Afgh­anistan in 2008.

Yet when the gov­ern­ment an­nounced that a new state-of the-art fa­cil­ity would be built to re­place the aging lab on Plum Is­land, many loc­ales jumped to com­pete. Kan­sas was se­lec­ted after a three-year pro­cess that began in 2006 with 29 sites com­pet­ing.

Today, the lab is de­pic­ted by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials as a vi­tal cog in the na­tion’s war on bi­o­ter­ror, and Home­land Se­cur­ity says the re­lo­ca­tion pro­cess in­cluded as­sess­ments of the en­vir­on­ment­al and se­cur­ity risks in­volved.

“The main labor­at­ory will boast safety and se­cur­ity fea­tures re­com­men­ded by the Na­tion­al Academies of Sci­ences,” Mor­an said in his re­lease. “It will in­clude spe­cial­ized air and wa­ter de­con­tam­in­a­tion sys­tems, new tech­no­lo­gies for hand­ling sol­id waste onsite, and struc­tur­al com­pon­ents to strengthen the labor­at­ory against haz­ard­ous weath­er con­di­tions.”

Back in Wash­ing­ton, it wasn’t the germs that caused some to be con­cerned. It was the money. Steve El­lis, vice pres­id­ent of Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense, cited the $404 mil­lion for the pro­ject as an “ear­mark­ish and ear­mark-esque” pro­vi­sion in the ap­pro­pri­ations bill.

But Gar­rette Sil­ver­man, a spokes­wo­man for Mor­an, coun­ters that the pro­ject “is about as far from an ear­mark as you can get.” It is a DHS pri­or­ity, she said, and has been sup­por­ted by two ad­min­is­tra­tions as vi­tal to ad­dress­ing bio­lo­gic­al threats.

“Kan­sas was un­an­im­ously se­lec­ted on its mer­its as the best loc­a­tion for NBAF by a se­lect pan­el of sci­ent­ists and ex­perts from DHS and the U.S. De­part­ment of Ag­ri­cul­ture,” she said.

For now, the fisc­al fights in Wash­ing­ton may have slowed the pace of ac­tu­al con­struc­tion. Pres­id­ent Obama ori­gin­ally pro­posed spend­ing $714 mil­lion in 2014, but only $404 mil­lion was ap­pro­pri­ated. That plus earli­er fed­er­al ex­pendit­ures and state money amount to about two thirds of the total cost of the pro­ject. An of­fi­cial ground­break­ing has already been held, and com­ple­tion is ex­pec­ted in 2018.

Whatever the ar­gu­ments, the lab is head­ing to Kan­sas.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×