In the few months before the Department of Homeland Security announces where it will build a controversial, $450 million federal disease research lab, proponents in the five contending states, including North Carolina, are trying to outspend, outbid and out-promise the others in hopes of landing the project.
The financial stakes got higher Tuesday, when the N.C. Consortium, an influential group of biotech companies, agribusiness interests, universities and government agencies, received more than a quarter-million dollars in public funds to pay for an "educational" campaign touting their views about siting the National Agro and Bio Defense Facility in Butner.
The Golden LEAF Foundation board awarded the $262,248 grant to the consortium, the first time in the foundation's nine-year history that its funds have been allocated to a public relations campaign, according to a review of grantees listed on the foundation Web site.
Although the board awarded the grant with the stipulation that the disseminated information be "impartial and factual," by their nature, PR campaigns are neither. It is also unclear who would judge the impartiality and veracity of the campaign.
"I fear that once Golden LEAF has funded a public relations campaign, other groups will be able to apply and do the same," said Bill McKellar of the Granville Nonviolent Action Team, which opposes the lab on environmental, safety and economic grounds. "It's setting a precedent."
Golden LEAF was created in 1999 to collect money from the state's tobacco settlement and distribute it through grants and investments that boost North Carolina's long-term economic health, particularly in rural communities hurt by the downturn in tobacco farming.
"It looks like Golden LEAF is taking more liberties with its original mission, which is to promote economic development for all of North Carolina, particularly rural counties," said David Mills, executive director of the Common Sense Foundation, a progressive policy organization based in Durham. "It's particularly outrageous when all kinds of projects all over the state are crying out for this funding."
Foundation President Valeria Lee said the grant complies with Golden Leaf's mission in that one of the criteria for economic catalyst grants is examining new technologies and applications for agriculture. "We're going to learn something, no matter where the lab is located, about what our government is doing in regards to research, " she said
Lee acknowledged that the decision to award the grant sets a precedent for other groups to make similar requests. "At that time, the board will look at the pros and cons and the reasonableness of the request," she said, adding that she does not believe this grant is funding a public relations campaign. She called it "community education."
That "education" will come at the price of more than $100,000 to be paid to public relations firm French West Vaughan, which has offices in Raleigh, New York City and Tampa. Its client list includes hundreds of private companies, nonprofits and government associations including Pfizer, N.C. State University and the embattled Roanoke Rapids Theater.
French West Vaughan's Web site notes that Pfizer hired the firm to influence "the mindset and behavior of politically influential individuals and groups around the state. FWV developed a three-pronged approach to shaping opinions."
However, Ken Tindall, senior vice president of science and business development at the N.C. Biotechnology Center, a consortium member, addressed skepticism about the intent of the campaign: "It is to provide the public with accurate information and education, not to sway public opinion."
The NBAF will study some of the world's most contagious and dangerous diseases, including several that are transmissible from animals to humans. Proponents contend it will be an economic boon to North Carolina. They also claim it will be safe, but recent congressional testimony and reports by government investigators have cast serious doubts on those assertions, particularly in regards to risks of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
Despite the powerful interests behind the NBAF, concerns have spoken louder than money. GNAT has used the $1,000 it has collected from donations to print flyers, make T-shirts and set up an information booth at the Festival for the Eno this month. While done on the cheap, GNAT's grassroots tactics could be eroding community acceptance for the NBAF—a crucial component in Homeland Security's decision on locating the lab.
With this in mind, the timing of the public relations campaign is curious. The final public comment period ends in late August, yet the campaign is scheduled to last through January 2009, by which time Homeland Security is expected to have announced the site. This raises questions of whether the politically powerful may have Homeland Security's ear—or can hone the message—even after the public can no longer comment on the proposal.
Consortium member Dave Green of the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine said information would be helpful, even as Homeland Security mulls its decision.
"There might be more information available about foot-and-mouth disease or the GAO reports," he said. "Having information available to citizens, organizations, leaders will be useful."
Consortium leaders allege NBAF opponents have been spreading misinformation about the project, which the PR campaign is designed to correct. However, McKellar notes that GNAT's objections are based on Government Accountability Office reports and congressional testimony, both of which were highly critical of Homeland Security and the NBAF, particularly in regards to safety risks.
The consortium's Web site, www.ncc-nbaf.org, already lists what it considers to be misconceptions and inaccuracies about the NBAF, including rumors that it would be a bioweapons lab, and the counterarguments.
Asked if the public information campaign would include GAO reports critical of NBAF, Tindall said it would, adding that those documents are available on the consortium Web site. However, those reports were not available on the site at press time.
With the grant money, the consortium will disseminate its message through the media and direct mail: $48,000 for newspaper ads, $15,000 to redesign the consortium's Web site, $15,000 for "informational postcards" to be sent to residents, and $4,500 for a news clipping service. About $72,000 would pay for time and travel for staff of the N.C. Association for Biomedical Research, a nonprofit that last year reported net assets of more than $300,000, according to federal tax records, and the N.C. Biotechnology Center, a state-funded enterprise, which had a $17.6 million budget in 2007.
"They're using the money to get out of a tight spot politically and financially," McKellar said. "It's really sad."
A public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be held Tuesday, July 29, at Butner-Stem Middle School, 501 E. D St. in Butner. There are two sessions: 12:30-4:30 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. Look for a story in next week's Indy.