Columbia may not have had the right combination of financial and political resources to bring a national biodefense laboratory to the city.
Jim Coleman, MU’s vice chancellor for research, said he expects to get more details about why the Department of Homeland Security passed over Columbia for a National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility. Coleman said he thinks the Department of Homeland Security was looking for greater cost sharing from its future partner in building and operating the lab, a biosafety level four facility that will research some of the most dangerous diseases that affect humans and animals.
“Ours was in the millions, and Georgia’s and Carolina’s was in the ten millions,” Coleman said.
On Wednesday, Department of Homeland Security said five locations, in Mississippi, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia, are still being considered for the lab. A multidisciplinary team put together by the department will now begin to put together environmental impact statements at each potential site, Larry Orluskie, Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said. The final site will be chosen in fall of 2008.
George Stewart, chairman of veterinary pathobiology at MU, said the Department of Homeland Security called him at about 10:15 a.m. Wednesday to let him know Columbia was not on the short list of finalists for the lab, which would have been located in southeast Columbia off New Haven Road.
Stewart said the news was “a big loss for the university” but would not hurt MU’s larger goal of trying to attract cutting-edge research and researchers. “We’ll have to continue,” he said, “but obviously this eliminates one avenue that we will pursue.”
Opponents of the lab were relieved to learn that Columbia has been eliminated as a potential site. They had argued that the diseases studied in the lab would put the people and livestock of Missouri at risk.
“I was very pleased,” said Karen Onofrio, a resident of the Woodlands neighborhood, near the proposed site, and an organizer of No Death Lab, the opposition group. “I think the safety of the people and animals of Missouri are the most important.”
MU submitted its proposal for the lab in spring of 2006. The city made the cut from 29 proposed locations to 17, which was followed by site visits by Homeland Security personnel in March. Public officials, including Mayor Darwin Hindman and all three Boone County commissioners, sent letters of support for the lab to the Department of Homeland Security. The city’s proposal also had the support of state and local economic development officials.
Coleman, who recently announced he would leave MU to become the vice provost for research at Rice University, said he received fewer than 30 e-mails expressing opposition to the lab, and he does not think it was a big factor in the Department of Homeland Security’s decision. Coleman did say that Kansas had a more positive political environment, with the governor and the Kansas Bioscience Authority actively touting the state’s proposal.
“Our resistance may have played a role, it may not have played a role, we just don’t know,” he said. “The positive side (of not hosting the lab) is we won’t have to deal with the angst in the community for the next 18 months.”
At Wednesday’s meeting of Regional Economic Development Inc., Coleman said he expects to hear from the Department of Homeland Security that Columbia’s resources weren’t as competitive compared with those of other states. City Manager Bill Watkins asked Coleman if the recent decision by the Missouri Cattleman’s Association to withdraw its support for the lab had anything to do with Homeland Security’s decision.
“It’s all speculation,” Coleman replied. “It’s hard for me to believe we were a finalist last week and aren’t now.”
Onofrio said she learned Columbia was no longer on Homeland Security’s list when a neighbor called her Wednesday morning. The No Death Lab group had planned to send Homeland Security more signatures from its petition drive next week, she said. Some people were so concerned about the safety of the lab that they considered moving away if Columbia was chosen as the site, Onofrio said.
Now that Columbia is no longer in the running, Onofrio said she’s been getting calls from people saying, “See, I don’t have to move away anymore,” and “I don’t have to put a sign in my yard.”