Tester: Proposed federal lab endangers U.S. beef

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Federal plans to relocate a dangerous animal disease laboratory from an isolated island to the heart of cattle country is too risky for the nation’s beef industry, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, warned Tuesday.

Siding with the Billings-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, Tester urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to abandon plans for relocating an isolated national animal disease lab to Manhattan, Kan.

The National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, located off the New York coast, is scheduled for relocation to Kansas, where state officials hope a federal-university partnership will boost the state’s bioscience profile. The cost of the project is $650 million.

But Tester and R-CALF USA argue that the lab belongs on Plum Island, N.Y., where the danger of infecting the American cattle industry with foot-and-mouth disease is minimal.

Outbreaks of the disease in other countries have meant the full-scale destruction of national livestock herds. Late last year, federal officials released a 146-page report indicating a 70 percent likelihood of an outbreak in the next 50 years if the lab is relocated, but proponents of the project debunked the report and pressed ahead. “The potential for this to spread like wildfire is real,” Tester said.

Until recently, it was illegal to conduct experiments on foot-and-mouth disease within the continental United States. Federal law restricted all research to Plum Island, where the distance and prevailing coastal winds assured the disease wouldn’t reach the East Coast.

In nearly 50 years, not a single animal pathogen has escaped the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

But Homeland Security began considering a new facility during President George W. Bush’s administration. A few states began lobbying for the facility and the extensive federal resources that came with it.

Kansas prevailed in 2009, not only with the support of its Republican congressional delegation but also with conditional approval from President Barack Obama. The Democrat included $150 million for the new lab in his 2012 budget proposal released early this year.

Kansas argues that its agriculture expertise and scientific research at Kansas State University will make the federal government’s infectious-disease lab better.

“The NBAF’s research is sure to be accelerated, and it will be done in the safest, most modern facility ever built to protect the food supply and agricultural economy,” said Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., in a welcome letter to the disease lab. The letter emphasizes the state’s commitment to safety and its scientific expertise concerning livestock.

What the letter doesn’t mention is that the lab would be located in a region of the United States where tornadoes are common. That omission concerns Bill Bullard of R-CALF USA.

“The risk assessment revealed the probability of release and infection approached 70 percent over the 50-year lifetime of the facility,” Bullard said. “Scientists characterize it as more likely than not.”

The risk report by the National Academy of Sciences estimated the economic losses of an outbreak to be $9 billion to $50 billion.

Homeland Security officials said the report didn’t consider mitigation efforts. Since the report, the project has been modified to make it more tornado-resistant.

Obama made a new site-specific risk assessment a condition of his support, meaning the region’s natural disasters as well as the high concentration of cattle within 200 miles of the lab would have to be considered. That assessment hasn’t been released.