Proposed Federal Lab Raises Residents' Fears

9 years 6 months 1 day ago March 29, 2007 Mar 29, 2007 Thursday, March 29 2007 Thursday, March 29, 2007 7:39:05 PM CDT in News

In a special report, KOMU explores local community concerns.

Just down the road from an elementary school, the University of Missouri wants to build a national biological and agricultural facility, or NBAF, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security.

The proposed building worries residents of the nearby Woodland subdivision.

"In this immediate area, everyone is concerned," said resident Jerry Morin. "Maybe concerned isn't the word, maybe even fearful."

Residents and others emailed MU about their fears.

"Columbia, once relatively safe in its obscurity, would be a sitting duck and a prime national target for terrorists," wrote Ester Stroh, "increasing the likelihood of a devastating release of pathogens and/or bioweapons in our community."

The University of Texas medical branch in Galveston has a regional lab and it's building a national lab. Directors there said they haven't seen a risk.

"The truth of the matter is a number of these bugs, although they are very deadly inside of people or animals, when they are on their own and outside they are pretty wimpy bugs," said Tom Curtis, research communications director at UT-Galveston Medical Center. "If worst came to worst and a 747 hit the building or something like that, you would probably burn up anything inside that would be a problem."

MU researchers say it's necessary to combine human and animal disease research in one facility.

"As evidenced by Avian Influenza where you can see that there are no boundaries, that certain agents don't know a boundary between humans and animals, so the research has to be coordinated," explained Joe Kornegay dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

But, Walter Frueh emailed his reasons for finding a better location for the research.

"This type of facility should only be located in very isolated locations. There's a reason why the current facility is on an island (Plum Island) off the coast of New York. It is to be isolated from people."

Kornegay disagreed.

"When you start thinking about that, trying to ensure that the facility is the best that it can possibly be, putting the facility in an isolated area may actually prevent one from achieving that goal," he argued. "You may not be able to attract the best possible workforce, you may not have, by definition, the greatest opportunities for collaboration."

Kornegay noted similar facilties aren't isolated.

"The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] in Atlanta would be an example where a BSL4 lab is in close proximity to developed areas."

And both of Galveston's level-four labs are in the middle of campus.

In fact, Kornegay said, MU's prime location between research centers in Kansas City and St.Louis would offer more opportunity for collaborative research.

"In St. Louis at Washington University, St. Louis University, the Danforth Center. We have opportunities as well for collaboration in Kansas City with some of the animal health companies," he explained. "So it will broaden, it will strenghten, it will provide greater synergy to ongioing programs."

Kornegay and Curtis say security at the facilities is tight.

"The analogy for a BSL4 is a box within a box within a box."

"A submarine inside a bank vault, putting people in so-called space suits with separate air supply. It's kind of a sandwich as well. You've got, on top, air-handling filtering facilities. On the bottom, you've got anything that cooks liquid waste so that when it leaves, when anything exits the lab, it's been thoroughly decontaminated."

"This isn't like a chemical plant. It's not like there's going to be any real impact per se on the property itself."

One requirement of the facility is to have a perimeter fence marking a 250-foot buffer zone. But, reports on the DHS facility on Pum Island aren't exactly reassuring.

A 2003 New York Times article reported door sensors and alarms didn't work, foreign students and scientists who accessed dangerous pathogens didn't receive background checks, and a laptop computer disappeared from the building, leaving those concerned to wonder how easily a small vial of pathogens could disappear.

"There's always the chance of an error or an escape of a disease or bacteria or something."

That doesn't calm fears of people who emailed MU to question or oppose the facility. Several residents questioned the limited opportunity for public comment and the short notice before the only public forum on March 31.

Kornegay said community acceptance is one key factor for the site DHS chooses.

Thursday night KOMU will explore how the facility may convince one resident to relocate.

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