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.

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