Fears about bio-defense lab grow

Columbia awaits research on potential risks involved in hosting bio-reseach lab.
Thursday, June 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:51 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Columbia could learn soon whether it is still in the running as a potential site for a biological research lab, said a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Columbia is one of 17 locations across the country being considered for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Larry Orluskie, a Homeland Security spokesperson, said he expects an announcement of three to five final site selections by July 1.

Meanwhile, Columbia residents who oppose the project have scheduled a community meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at New Haven Elementary School. Karen Onofrio, a resident of the Woodlands neighborhood located near the proposed site, said the meeting is an opportunity to update people and discuss how to organize opposition to the lab, which would research and develop ways to protect livestock from bioterrorist attacks. Opponents fear that the pathogens studied at the lab, which could include avian flu and foot and mouth disease, make it a potential danger to the nearby residents and a threat to livestock.

The project has the support of education and business leaders from around the state. A proposal submitted to Homeland Security by MU in spring 2006 also included letters of support from Mayor Darwin Hindman and members of the Boone County Commission. Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin, along with Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller and former Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre signed a letter of support. Elkin said he was urged to back the project because it would attract new jobs and spur economic development in the area.

But, Elkin said, he has since talked with opponents of the lab and would like to learn more about it.

“I want to weigh all the facts and make sure it’s a right fit for our community, if it’s a fit at all,” he said. “What I’m hearing from the public is that they don’t want it. My job is to make sure the folks I represent have a voice.”

Hindman said the lab could offer a great opportunity for MU and the community. In his letter of support, Hindman wrote that the city was working with MU to reroute Lenoir Road to improve access to the proposed site, in the Discovery Ridge research park at MU’s South Farm complex on New Haven Road.

Hindman said Wednesday that despite the letter he does not yet know whether he will ultimately favor the lab’s construction in Columbia.

“Everybody recognizes there must be some risk, but nobody has any idea what the risk is,” he said. “If the risk is high, then we don’t want it. On the other hand, if the risk is negligible — which could very well be the case — it could be a tremendous opportunity.”

Barbara Hoppe, Sixth Ward City Councilwoman, whose ward would be home to the $450 million lab, said more input from Columbia residents was needed before the public officials offered their support.

Hoppe attended the first meeting of the lab opponents on May 1 at New Haven Elementary School, and left with heightened concerns about the project.

“I’ve gotten a lot of input and concerns, from not only residents, but doctors and physicians, and they have told me they will move if it comes to Columbia,” Hoppe said.

Neither Hindman not Hoppe expect the matter to come before council, although Hoppe said she expects residents to bring their concerns to their council representatives.

Ken Midkiff, conservation chairman for the Osage Group of the Sierra Club, said the organization is officially opposed to the lab. He also said there has not been much community involvement so far.

“If Columbia is selected to be one of the three to five sites, we plan on doing more,” he said.

He said he and several members of the Sierra Club were part of a “welcoming committee” to protest the lab when site inspectors from Homeland Security visited in May.

“At this point, there’s nothing that can be pointed to say this is a real threat,” he said. “The only threat is that the University of Missouri has filled out an application, and the people at the Department of Homeland Security have looked at it.”

Onofrio, who was a retired pathologist who used to inspect laboratories, said the facility could have all the high-tech safety features available, but “it all rests on the weakest link, which is people.”

“The consequences of an accident are huge,” she said.

The Department of Homeland Security said it expects to make the final decision on the lab’s location in October 2008.

For more information, including MU’s proposal to the Department of Homeland Security and some frequently asked questions about biodefense labs, go to Opponents of the project have a Web site at

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