The next coffin nail was hammered into the proposed National Bio and Agro Defense Facility Monday night when Durham County Commissioners voted 4-1 to oppose the federal disease lab that could be sited in Butner.
The commission also took a stronger step of passing a resolution to draft a letter to the N.C. Consortium, which is lobbying the Department of Homeland Security for the lab, asking the group to withdraw its proposal.
Lewis Cheek cast the dissenting vote, saying he would prefer to list the commission's concerns in formal comments to DHS.
Some of the strongest testimony came from Durham County Public Health Director Brian Letourneau, who emphatically told the commission, "I can find no recommendation to site it there [in Butner]. I don't see the reward equaling the risk."
Letourneau bemoaned the lack of information in the draft environmental impact statement (see "Homeland Security releases key NBAF documents"), including the plan to deal with infected mosquitoes that could escape from the lab and spread disease to animals and humans. Several of the diseases that would be studied at NBAF are transmissible via mosquitoes and ticks to animals and humans. "How feasible is it to contain the release beyond the facility? Who will the first responders be, and who will train them?" Letourneau asked.
Jeffrey Batten, Durham County emergency management director, said he was alarmed by the May 2008 Government Accountability Office report casting serious doubts on whether foot and mouth disease, which would be studied at NBAF, could be safely researched on the U.S. mainland. (See "NBAF lambasted in Congress.") The virus is currently housed only offshore at Plum Island Animal Research Center, located off the tip of Long Island, N.Y.
"We don't have the resources to respond to this type of emergency," Batten said.
His comment reiterated that of the Bahama Fire Department, which sent a written statement that read, in part: "We are not prepared. We would need training and specialized equipment."
The letter went on: "There is a risk to the men and women who would respond in case of an emergency. Do not ask us to assume this risk."
The commission vote was the latest blow to local support for the federal disease lab. Raleigh City Council, Butner Town Council, Granville County Commissioners, U.S. Rep. Brad Miller and state Sen. Doug Berger have either strongly opposed siting the lab in Butner or have withdrawn their support. (See "Brad Miller withdraws support for NBAF in Butner.")
"This comes down to a fundamental issue of trust," Berger, who represents Granville County, told the commission. Berger was among a cavalcade of elected officials who lavished praised on the NBAF proposal at a September 2007 scoping meeting. He said the findings in the GAO report prompted him to change his position. Furthermore, he is asking his fellow elected officials to withdraw their support in hopes of persuading the Consortium to pull Butner from the running.
Warwick Arden, dean of the N.C. State veterinary school and a main proponent of NBAF, said Tuesday it's unlikely Homeland Security will choose Butner because of community concerns and the lack of state funding to pay for infrastructure and other expenses not covered by the federal government. Other states, including Kansas, have offered more than $100 million for that purpose.
However, Arden stopped short of saying the consortium would withdraw its proposal from consideration. "I'm concerned that we don't take any action at this time that would damage the selection process. We shouldn't do anything that will harm the chances of it being built somewhere. The country desperately needs it."
"The sentiments expressed by the community are important to us," he added. "We agonize about that—about how to be true to the process and sensitive to the community."
The issues of trust and accountability have been at the forefront of arguments against Homeland Security and the NBAF. (See "NBAF opponents confront Homeland Security.") The agency has repeatedly failed to answer detailed questions about the lab, and there are gaping holes in the 1,000-page draft environmental impact statement. For example, as several citizens mentioned at the commission meeting, there was little or cursory mention of the 7,000 people living in institutions, hospitals and prisons near the proposed site. These residents are close enough to the lab to be in the "movement containment zone" for livestock should an outbreak occur.
What little trust remained was further eroded when the Associated Press reported Monday that it had obtained internal documents showing that Homeland Security Undersecretary Jay Cohen had ignored the scoring system—which placed Butner as the top finalist with a 94—and vaulted low-rated Flora, Miss., to the finalist list. The rankings were assessed last year; Flora, which had an 81, scored lower than many sites that didn't make the final cut.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said Cohen has the decision-making authority to "weigh the panel's evaluation of sites focusing on what's existing and what sites are willing to offer." According to the AP, Mississippi is willing to work closely with Battelle Memorial Institute, a Homeland Security contractor that already manages some national labs elsewhere for the Homeland Security and Energy departments.
Kudwa said the documents obtained by the AP were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because they detailed "a deliberative process." However, they were submitted to Congress for oversight, Kudwa said, but she did not know which committees or subcommittees received the documents.
U.S. Rep. David Price chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security; his Democratic colleague U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge serves on the Homeland Security committees. As of Tuesday morning, press secretaries for Price and Etheridge were checking as to whether the congressmen received Homeland Security internal documents.
Dean Warwick Arden said he was surprised by the report, although he noted "there were concerns all along that Mississippi was put in for other than objective reasons." The state scored low in access to academic research facilities and workforce training.
Arden said he has not spoken with Homeland Security about the rankings, but added that Butner's high score—which was issued last year—was a validation that North Carolina would be a good place for the lab. "But now it's a totally different scenario," Arden said, referring to community opposition and the funding issues. "Those factors are more dominant factors."
As the Indy reported last year, politics were expected to loom large in the site selection. (See "Biotech or biohazard?") For example, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was a former Republican Party chairman; fellow Mississippian Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee; while Republican Sen. Thad Cochran is on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
"The politics are huge," said Barrett Slenning, an N.C. State associate professor at the veterinary school, last August. "There will be all kinds of levels of political pressure on DHS and others to gain influence."