By JOHN MILBURN, Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ The federal government has underestimated the risks of building a lab for researching dangerous animal diseases in a densely populated area in the heart of cattle country, a report released Monday contends.
The National Research Council’s report notes that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security itself has estimated that there is a 70 percent chance a pathogen could be released from the lab within 50 years, and that it could cause up to $50 billion in damages.
Homeland Security officials have concluded that the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility would be safe. The $451 million lab would be built on the north side of the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan.
The research council calls the assessment “not entirely adequate or valid.”
The council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, specifically avoids saying whether the new lab should be built in Kansas. But its report also says that the site– in the heart of cattle country and near Kansas State’s football stadium –adds to the risks.
The council’s 146-page report says Homeland Security’s assessment of the risks, completed in June, “had several major shortcomings.”
“It neglected to consider the risks associated with NBAF’s proximity to a metropolitan area and other animal facilities,” the council says. “Ultimately, policymakers will need to decide whether the risks are acceptable relating to constructing and operating NBAF in Manhattan.”
The new lab would replace an aging one on Plum Island, N.Y., and Congress ordered the research council’s report in agreeing to provide $32 million last year for planning. Construction is supposed to start in 2012, with operations transferred from Plum Island by as early as 2017.
The lab would research foot-and-mouth and other dangerous animal diseases that can be passed to humans. Kansas State already conducts similar research at the Biosecurity Research Center, which is located near where the new lab will be constructed.
The National Research Council’s report notes that the site is near Kansas State’s College of Veterinary Medicine and that almost 10 percent of the nation’s nearly 95 million cattle are within 200 miles of the site, as are substantial swine operations and meatpacking plants.
The report notes that the existing lab is on an uninhabited island, while the new one would be in an area “that has a large human population and is very close to susceptible animals.”
“The large population that gathers for football games and other events is potentially susceptible to infections,” the report says. “Additionally, the presence of large numbers of vehicles during public events increases the odds that some will transport a released pathogen outside of the area.”
The council also says it is concerned that Homeland Security officials have not adequately described how they’d detect the release of a pathogen early.
It also says the department’s strategies for dealing with such a release don’t “realistically demonstrate” how well federal, state and local authorities would handle it.
National Research Council: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/NRC/
U.S. Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov/
Kansas State University: http://www.k-state.edu/
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)