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From the numbers being floated around in editorials in the daily papers, a new federal research lab in Butner sounds like a real economic development boon for North Carolina.

Gift horses 

From the numbers being floated around in editorials in the daily papers, a new federal research lab in Butner sounds like a real economic development boon for North Carolina: a $450 million investment that will generate $1.65 billion in revenue its first two decades and create 250-350 high-paying jobs, all while studying the world's deadliest pathogens under the aegis of W's Department of Homeland Security.

Newspaper ink has been gushing locally since the announcement in May that the Umstead Research Farm in southern Granville County was under consideration as the new home for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (or NBAF, pronounced en-baff, in insider lingo. Who names these joints, anyway?).

"The concentration of major universities and government and private research facilities in the Triangle make us strong contenders for the lab," the Herald-Sun proclaimed July 13, after the list of potential locations was winnowed to five. "It's encouraging to still be in the hunt."

The News & Observer has struck an even heavier rah-rah tone, with an uncritical business page story announcing the proposal on May 11 and two editorials supporting the plan since, including this missive on July 24: "Government, academic and business interests have joined to make a strong pitch to win the lab, and Gov. Easley should make sure the state is focused on that effort.... This is a bid that the Triangle, and North Carolina, should not be prepared to lose."

The paper went on to speculate that the lab may become "a center for international research" and that "spinoff businesses" would bring hundreds more jobs on top of the 200 promised.

With the exception of the occasional acknowledgement that "of course the lab must be secure," any hint of the potential costs of this lab—in human and animal endangerment, environmental detriments and other downsides—are almost entirely absent from the mainstream press coverage.

This facility would handle the kinds of diseases you read about in Michael Crichton novels and White House "threat level" memos, from anthrax to ebola. Its predecessor, called Plum Island, has had so many security breaches and medical disasters that a researcher wrote an entire book about them.

The normal checks and balances that feed a democratic debate about a project like this—and give supporters and opponents opportunities to publicly air the pros and cons—are crippled by the fact that a large majority of the proposed site's neighbors are "contained populations": prison inmates, the mentally ill and at-risk teenagers.

In "Biotech or biohazard?," reporter Lisa Sorg examines this gift horse—and all its viruses—close up.


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