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Defense lab site raises concerns

MU plan passes into the second round for a new biodefense facility.
Thursday, August 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:51 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

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Lynda Hayward lives in a trailer right next to Warren Drive near MU South Farm. East of Warren Drive is a green pasture where several horses quietly eat grass. At the south end of the street, it meets New Haven Road. Golden sunflowers stretch northward from the double-lane road. There is only rural life in South Farm, two miles southeast of Columbia.

“There is nothing I want to change,” said 63-year-old Hayward, an Oklahoma native who has lived in Columbia for 11 years. “I like overlooking the countryside. I can see the sunrise and sunset from my house. I can open my windows. I don’t want anything that’s going to make me sick.”

Hayward’s concern is that the 100 acres north of New Haven Road and east of Warren Drive has become the proposed site in Columbia for a new federal project: the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Two residential areas are adjacent to the site. To the west there is Hayward’s home and tens of other trailers. Big Timber Drive, a curved drive just a little east of the site, is home to dozens of houses with mowed lawns.

“The facility is highly secure, based on the containment features utilized in construction,” said Joe Kornegay, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at MU and the lead person in the Missouri Consortium’s application process. “These facilities have been routinely placed in populous areas, including two national laboratories under construction in Galveston, Texas, and Boston.”

The function of the new facility is to carry out research and develop diagnostic capabilities for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases.

Zoonotic research focuses on diseases transferred from animals to humans.

Much of the research is performed at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. But with the aging facility becoming more expensive to maintain and the need for research to address potential bioterrorism threats increasing, the plan for building a new integrated and secure facility was born.

The Department of Homeland Security made an announcement requesting proposals for potential sites in January. Columbia, along with 28 other applicants, submitted an “expression of interest” in March. Three weeks ago, 18 applicants were notified that they had passed the first round of screening and will enter the next phase of competition. Columbia is one of them.

Before Kornegay submitted an application, a meeting with community leaders and a public forum were held. Members of the community raised concerns about the site’s potential environmental impact. Some expressed fear that the site could become a target of terrorist attacks.

“I don’t think this facility would be a terrorist target,” said George Stewart, chairman of the MU department of veterinary pathobiology, who is closely involved in the application process. “It’s a research lab, not a production facility. The amount of the infectious agents is very small, and the building is well-guarded.”

Keith Gary, director of program development for the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, which is a supporting unit to Columbia’s application, said: “They might have a list of diseases they want to focus on, but it’s really too early to tell. Avian flu and SARS were (not concerns) five years ago.”

According to information on the Web site of the Department of Homeland Security, as site selection for the facility progresses, there will be an environmental impact statement that analyzes the potential environmental effects of constructing and operating the facility. During the whole process, the general public will be kept informed, according to the Web site.

Despite some concerns, the facility is expected to bring economic benefits.

“I feel this would be a tremendous asset to the College of Veterinary Medicine, MU, Columbia and the state of Missouri,” said Kornegay. “We have strong research capabilities, a highly-trained workforce and favorable conditions for construction and operation. We also offered 100 acres from which the Department of Homeland Security can choose for the 30 acres facility, This gives them more flexibility.”

The proposal calls on a consortium that will unite research capacities from Washington University, St. Louis University, the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute. MU’s academic divisions and Columbia’s central location in the state are mentioned as two overarching strengths.

There are two other locations in Missouri that remain on the list of 18 sites. One is in Manhattan and the other is in Leavenworth. MU is also a supporting unit in their proposals. The university might have a chance to participate if any of them is awarded with the project.

This is not the first time Columbia has been in such a competition. Columbia was short-listed as one of three applicants for the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense in 2004. Texas A&M University was awarded the $18 million program.

Nor will the biodefense facility become Columbia’s first federal research lab. A four-story facility will be erected in 2007 on the east end of the Life Sciences Center for the National Plant Genetics & Security Center, a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility.

However, the total cost of $451 million for the biodefense project has generated higher expectations.

“The economic impact wouldn’t be confined to Columbia or MU,” said Kornegay. “It would impact the whole state.”

He estimated that 250 to 400 people would be employed by the facility.

“We are not talking about minimum wage jobs,” said Stewart. “These will be mid- to high paying jobs.”

He also noted that the construction and possible vaccine production will provide an extra boost to the economy.

For Kornegay and Stewart, the next step is to prepare for further detailed questions from the Department of Homeland Security that are supposed to arrive this week. A short list will be determined by the end of this year. The final site will be selected by early 2008. The facility is expected to open its doors in 2013 and run for 50 years.

“As the process moves forward, we will keep people informed and answer any questions they have,” Kornegay said.


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