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 »
PHOTO OP
Clinton Shows Up on Stage to Close Obama’s Speech
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

Just after President Obama finished his address to the DNC, Hillary Clinton walked out on stage to join him, so the better could share a few embraces, wave to the crowd—and let the cameras capture all the unity for posterity.

‘DON’T BOO. VOTE.’
Obama: Country Is Stronger Than Eight Years Ago
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

In a speech that began a bit like a State of the Union address, President Obama said the "country is stronger and more prosperous than it was" when he took office eight years ago. He then talked of battling Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008, and discovering her "unbelievable work ethic," before saying that no one—"not me, not Bill"—has ever been more qualified to be president. When his first mention of Donald Trump drew boos, he quickly admonished the crowd: "Don't boo. Vote." He then added that Trump is "not really a plans guy. Not really a facts guy, either."

‘HILLARY CLINTON HAS A PASSION’
Kaine Sticks Mostly to the Autobiography
8 hours ago
THE LATEST

Tim Kaine introduced himself to the nation tonight, devoting roughly the first half of his speech to his own story (peppered with a little of his fluent Spanish) before pivoting to Hillary Clinton—and her opponent. "Hillary Clinton has a passion for children and families," he said. "Donald Trump has a passion, too: himself." His most personal line came after noting that his son Nat just deployed with his Marine battalion. "I trust Hillary Clinton with our son's life," he said.

TRUMP IS A ‘CON’
Bloomberg: Neither Party Has a Monopoly on Good Ideas
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

Michael Bloomberg said he wasn't appearing to endorse any party or agenda. He was merely there to support Hillary Clinton. "I don't believe that either party has a monopoly on good ideas or strong leadership," he said, before enumerating how he disagreed with both the GOP and his audience in Philadelphia. "Too many Republicans wrongly blame immigrants for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on climate change and gun violence," he said. "Meanwhile, many Democrats wrongly blame the private sector for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on education reform and deficit reduction." Calling Donald Trump a "dangerous demagogue," he said, "I'm a New Yorker, and a know a con when I see one."

TRUMP’S ‘CYNICISM IS UNBOUNDED’
Biden: Obama ‘One of the Finest Presidents’
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

Vice President Biden tonight called President Obama "one of the finest presidents we have ever had" before launching into a passionate defense of Hillary Clinton. "Everybody knows she's smart. Everybody knows she's tough. But I know what she's passionate about," he said. "There's only one person in this race who will help you. ... It's not just who she is; it's her life story." But he paused to train some fire on her opponent "That's not Donald Trump's story," he said. "His cynicism is unbounded. ... No major party nominee in the history of this country has ever known less."

×