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Risk study on Kansas animal disease research facility still not definitive

The site-specific risk assessment the Homeland Security Department conducted for the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan., continues to be inadequate in characterizing the risks associated with locating it there, a National Research Council committee said in a report released today.

The proposed Kansas facility would replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, whose location off Long Island, N.Y., has always allowed the U.S. government to claim that certain animal diseases are not present on the mainland.

There have been concerns that locating the research facility in Kansas would risk the spread of serious large animal diseases.

The Government Accountability Office raised concerns about whether DHS’s environmental analysis of the potential spread of foot-and-mouth disease virus, one of the most serious foreign animal disease threats, and Congress directed DHS to conduct a site-specific risk assessment (SSRA) for the site. Congress also instructed the National Research Council to independently evaluate the SSRA, and prohibited obligation of NBAF construction funds until the NRC review was complete.

The NRC review found that the 2010 SSRA was inadequate due to flawed methods and assumptions which potentially underestimated the risk of an accidental foot and mouth disease release from the NBAF in Kansas, and Congress mandated that DHS revise its SSRA to address shortcomings. Congress also directed the NRC to evaluate the updated SSRA, and again prohibited obligation of construction funds until the completion of the second review.

The second review found that the second SSRA was “a substantial improvement” from the first, but still “underestimates the risks of pathogen release and infection and inadequately characterizes the uncertainties in those risks.”

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas released a joint statement.

“While we do not agree on some aspects of the evaluation, the National Academy of Sciences fittingly recognizes that NBAF would be a critical asset in securing the future health, wealth and security of the nation,” the statement said. “We call on the Department of Homeland Security to release the funds for the Central Utilities Plant and to begin construction immediately.”

“The completion of this study is the final legislative requirement prior to signing the land transfer and releasing previously appropriated funds for the construction of the Central Utilities Plant,” the three said in the statement.

Roberts noted that the House Appropriations Committee appropriated $75 million for NBAF construction and that the Senate is expected to debate the legislation this summer.