On a recent Sunday afternoon, two dozen members of the Granville Non-violent Action Team gathered at Body Fitness in downtown Butner for a meeting that was part strategy session, part group hug. Over cookies, carrot cake and Coca-Cola, they reflected on their 15-month battle against the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a federal disease research lab hatched by the Department of Homeland Security that could be sited in the small town just north of Raleigh and Durham.
"I've aged an awful lot in the past year," longtime Granville County resident Elaine McNeil said. "If I were to die tomorrow, I'd be proud of the people and neighbors I could call on to fight this environmental plague. I love you guys."
This is the same Elaine McNeil who, 15 months ago, stood before 500 people at a public meeting, glared at the director of national labs for Homeland Security with a gaze so intense it could have turned coal into diamonds, and bellowed: "Go home!"
To fully grasp the accomplishments of GNAT (www.nobio.org), you must first understand the group's formidable opponents: the opaque and powerful Homeland Security department; high-ranking local, state and federal elected officials who aggressively courted the project; and the N.C. Consortium, a deep-pocketed phalanx of biotech, academic, economic development and agriculture interests.
One by one, GNAT has persuaded most, if not all, elected officials (Democratic Congressman David Price is a notable hold out) to withdraw their support or actively oppose siting the lab in Butner.
Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss was the first official to publicly take a stand, in September 2007, when doing so was highly unpopular. "There was a lot of pressure," he said. "I had a private briefing from the consortium. I am one not to burn bridges, but I blew some up."
In a pivotal move, the group forced Homeland Security to return to Granville County last February for a previously unscheduled town hall meeting. GNAT disarmed federal officials by asking pointed questions about the lab's risks, for which there were few, if any, answers.
GNAT member Bill McKellar is a pharmacist at Quality Drugs in Butner, the locus for the NBAF fight, which includes a petition campaign that collected 4,500 signatures. "We stepped on a few toes," McKellar wrote in an e-mail to the group. "What we did was historically a first. We made DHS come back to Granville County and we chewed them out."
In June, Kathryn Spann, Hope Taylor and other GNAT members parsed a 1,000-page federal report, dismantling public safety, environmental, security and financial arguments. The list of virulent, even deadly diseases kept changing. In case of a virus outbreak, deer and other animals would have to be killed to prevent its spread. Emergency officials would have to spray pesticides over wide areas to kill mosquitoes, which could transmit disease. There was no concrete plan to evacuate the 7,000 people living in prisons, mental health institutions and residential homes for the developmentally disabled—all situated within two miles of the proposed lab. And the cost to state and local taxpayers reached hundreds of millions of dollars—all for 63 jobs that would go to North Carolina residents.
And in mid-summer, GNAT decried the Golden LEAF Foundation's $250,000 grant to the N.C. Consortium for a "public information campaign." Under pressure, the Foundation board later placed unprecedented requirements on the grant; the consortium returned the money because it refused to have its public relations materials vetted for truthfulness by the board.
"The turning of the tide happened once you pulled the veil away from media campaign and saw what the possibilities for the lab really were," said GNAT's Judy Winters. "People started getting a bad taste in their mouths."
Though GNAT's public passion for the issue was palpable, in private conversations with powerbrokers, its message was equally direct, yet tempered. That approach yielded results: Slowly, the dominoes of support fell: Granville County Commission, Butner Town Council, state Sen. Doug Berger, U.S. Rep. Brad Miller. In early August, the Raleigh City Council voted against it, citing concerns about unanswered questions about the lab's safety and its proximity to Falls Lake, the city's primary water supply. Durham County Commissioners followed suit and voted to oppose the lab because of its potential environmental and public safety impacts.
Durham Commissioner Ellen Reckhow was one of the four votes against the NBAF. "I was very impressed with the group," she told the Indy. "I felt they did their homework. They were respectful. You earn the respect of decision-makers when you're fact-based and don't let emotion take over such that it overrides your message. They did a nice job with that."
Even armed with facts, opposition was a tough sell. The Butner Town Council, whose members also had private meetings with the consortium, dragged its feet for many months before reversing its stand on the lab.
"One of the low moments was when we really felt like the Butner Town Council wasn't listening," said Winters. Only after the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released in June did town leaders realize how many vital questions were left unanswered.
Congressman Miller also was a late convert, and was nonplussed by GNAT's presentation in his office. "He had just sent a brochure out saying he was interested in fighting for the rights of the citizens in his district. I said, 'If this brochure is true, you know citizens are concerned and we shouldn't have this facility.' He went into saying the interests of all people in his district have to be taken into account, and those he had talked to assured him of the lab's safety."
Yet Miller was eventually swayed by a Government Accountability Report damning Homeland Security for its inadequate analysis of the safety of researching foot-and-mouth disease on the U.S. mainland. That highly contagious virus would be studied at the NBAF; it currently is housed at Plum Island, off the New York shore.
"He basically blew us off," said Taylor, who also is executive director of Clean Water North Carolina. "To see him come around is amazing."
But Miller did come around, issuing a statement in early August:"The Government Accountability Office and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, among others, have raised sober, serious concerns about the facility that DHS has not satisfied. If democracy means anything, local elected officials speak for the people of their community, and local elected officials in Granville County now oppose bringing the facility to Butner. I cannot support bringing a federal facility to a community in my district that does not welcome it."
This is not GNAT's first fight, albeit it may be the group's most difficult one. After forming in the late 1980s, the organization successfully defeated a hazardous waste incinerator the state wanted to site in Granville County. "Homeland Security is a more furtive and obscure agency, and it's harder to fight an enemy you can't see," said McNeil, an original GNAT member.
The NBAF battle has raised important issues about what industries are suitable for Granville County, an area often overshadowed by its Triangle neighbors.
"Industry is a good thing, but a lot of the local residents feel like we've always been dumped on," Winters said. "We've never been presented with any sustainable growth as a community; it's always the environmentally hazardous industries. The ideology of economic development has to evolve. We have to incorporate environmentally friendly ideas with what we recruit in this area. I don't think citizens will allow anything less."
However, the fight is not over. Next week, Homeland Security is expected to issue its Final Environmental Impact statement on the five proposed sites, a bellwether of the department's intent. Homeland Security will likely wait until late January to announce where the lab will be—or, given the economy, whether the feds can afford $1 billion to construct it.
Regardless, GNAT members are prepared to fight the lab, not only to keep it out of Butner, but considering the well-documented safety lapses in similar existing labs, to prevent it from being built at all.