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The buck stops here on NBAF 

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Finally, there is an issue opponents and proponents of a federal disease research lab can agree on: State or local governments should not pay for a utility plant required as part of the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility.

Barrett Slenning, a leading member of the N.C. Consortium, which has petitioned the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to build the federal disease research lab in Butner, rejects the federal government's proposal that state or local dollars would fund construction of the plant.

"We won't make such offers," he wrote in an e-mail to the Indy. "If that puts us at a competitive disadvantage, then that's the way things go."

The cost of the plant, which would provide electricity, steam, chilled water and backup power, is not included in Homeland Security's $450 million budget for the NBAF. It is unclear how much the utility plant would cost, but it is estimated to run in the tens of millions of dollars. A utility plant differs from a power plant in that it doesn't produce energy, but taps into the nearest electrical grid. NBAF would receive its electricity from Duke Energy.

Amy Kudwa, DHS spokesperson, says that the department would "continue to work with our state and local partners to determine the appropriate mix of federal and other funding."

Other states are more willing to subsidize a federal project. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius told the Associated Press she would ask for upward of $85 million in state bonds to finance construction of the utility plant. Manhattan, Kan., is one of six proposed lab sites.

And the Mississippi Consortium, which is lobbying for the site to be built in Flora, Miss., "will commit to providing any needed utility improvements for the NBAF," according to federal documents.

Kudwa says the utility plant has been a requirement since last fall, when federal officials visited the proposed sites. In addition to Butner, Manhattan and Flora, finalists include San Antonio, Texas, and Athens, Ga. Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center, which currently operates off the coast of Long Island, is the sixth proposed site.

Yet, while it is common for bio-containment labs and other large institutions to have their own utility plants, the requirement has not been thoroughly discussed, if mentioned at all, at public forums.

The February 2008 Final Scoping Report, which summarizes several months of public comment on NBAF, glosses over any utility plant requirement. The 124-page document notes the Environmental Impact Study—a draft of which is due next month—will "describe the utility infrastructure needed for the operation of the NBAF."

"The EIS will evaluate if existing facilities are adequate," the report continues, "or if upgrades, repairs or new facilities would be needed."

Ron Powell of the Granville Nonviolent Action Team, which strongly opposes the lab, says backup power sources are critical for a facility that studies such dangerous biological agents.

"How could [Homeland Security] leave the plant out of the budget?" Powell asks. "And now they want the states to pay for it. What else has been left out?"

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