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N-BAF gets puff treatment from 'News'

By Greg Harman
gharman@sacurrent.com 

As a writer, consumer, and critic of that all-so-serious thing we call "news," I often find myself reminded of a former small-town publisher's words: "It's not so much what you put in the paper, but what you don't."

When it comes to our San Antonio media's initiative regarding a proposed $500 million federal bioterror germ lab possibly en route to our fine "technology park," the credo has been resounding internally with a deafening pitch.

While the variety of media in five other states joust and wrestle over the possibility that Homeland Security's proposed National Bio- & Agro-Defense Facility may pour cement in their communities, it has been stunning to live through these last few months of silence in dear little San Antonio — where a stranglehold on all things lab-related reigns.

The Express-News' medical writer penned these deeply analytical offerings in 2007: "Scientists are smiling at the city's chances of landing disease lab," "Scientists like S.A.'s chances for lab," and (my favorite) "Biodefense lab needs support of community."

So imagine my surprise when the day after the first public hearing on the topic brought in both an Express-News editorial board endorsement of the lab and a new headline: "Biolab project's hearing has few naysayers."

During my time in the area, I have yet to see an in-depth treatment of the findings of the General Accounting Office, which suggested the proliferation of germ labs was heightening community risks and increasing the potential for accidents. Or any serious treatment of Homeland Security's Draft Environmental Impact Statement: water, power, employment, accidents?

However, in the last week, around the country, there has actually been N-BAF news happening. (AND, BTW, ITS REALLY, REALLY DIFFICULT NOT TO DRAG THE D.C. ANTHRAX KILLINGS INTO THIS RIGHT NOW. I MEAN, WHERE HAS THE BIO RISK COME FROM THIS LAST DECADE? FROM OUR OWN LABS AND SOCIOPATHS.)

The Raleigh, North Carolina City Council opposed the bio-lab

RALEIGH - The Raleigh City Council voted unanimously today to oppose a proposal to locate a federal defense lab in Butner.

The vote follows the recommendation of the city's public utilities department. Public utilities officials determined that the federal Department of Homeland Security had failed to respond to critical questions that Raleigh had formally submitted in September.

Most of those questions related to the fact that the Butner site is within the Falls Lake watershed. Falls Lake is the sole source of drinking water for Raleigh and six other Wake County towns...

State Sen. Doug Berger, who represents Granville County, urged the council to oppose the lab at today's meeting. Berger said federal officials had also failed to adequately answer questions and concerns he had submitted about the project.

"Really, what we have here is an arrogance of power," Berger said.

Kansas University double citation for toxic storage errors may hurt N-BAF chances:

Before KU or anyone else dismisses the EPA violations as overzealous government regulation, here’s a question to consider: What would happen to Kansas State University’s hopes of landing the new National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility if that university were cited for the same kind of problems found at KU?

The answer seems pretty clear. The lab that KSU and Manhattan are hoping to attract would deal with many deadly toxins. Any hint of laxity in how the university stores or disposes of materials used in its labs almost certainly would take it out of the running.

The problems KU is having with the EPA are not insignificant. They apparently haven’t resulted in any serious injuries or incidents, but when university employees are unable to even identify for an EPA inspector what is in several unlabeled bottles in the lab, the possibility that something could be mishandled is very real. Inspectors also noted several sets of chemicals stored together that, if mixed, could react in a way that triggers a fire or explosion.

The Kansas City Star got all over the issue:

While some livestock producers said they favored bringing the lab here, others said it seemed like too much of a risk to bring the most dangerous pathogens right into the heart of cattle country.

Kate Iola has done extensive research about a potential outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, or FMD. Deadstock, a 2006 novel she wrote, is based on extensive interviews with experts and her own knowledge that came from earning a master’s degree in molecular pathology, working in a research lab and writing about agriculture as a farm reporter.

Iola, who did not attend last week’s Manhattan hearing said it is a mistake to leave Plum Island, N.Y., the current home of the cramped and aging facility that officials intend to replace.

It appears, Iola said, that politics are poised to trump the interests of agriculture and the United States economy. The potential of harm to the national agricultural economy simply is not worth the risk, she said.

“It is so discouraging to me to see the public be so gullible,” Iola said. “I would not mind having an Ebola lab next door, but I want FMD on an island.”

Mississippi Guv Haley Barbour pumped the stump for N-BAF, saying "No state is more united."

Mississippi's enthusiasm could give it an edge in securing a $450 million Homeland Security laboratory, officials say.

Hundreds of people attended a public hearing Tuesday in Flora on the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The general sentiment from the crowd was positive.

"Most of these people are here because they support it," Flora Mayor Scott Greaves said.

The town is among six finalists for the lab, which will study animal diseases.

"This is a gigantic opportunity - not only for Flora and central Mississippi but for the whole state," Gov. Haley Barbour said.

By most accounts, Mississippi is a strong contender for the facility.

Battelle, a private nonprofit that operates government labs across the country, has picked Flora as its site to back and will operate the lab if Mississippi is selected.

"Battelle chose us," Barbour said. "We think that's hugely important. It shows we are here to compete."

A re-education effort in N. Carolina fell by the wayside.

The N.C. Biotechnology Center has turned down $262,248 in state money approved last month to pay for an education campaign about a biodefense lab proposed for Granville County.

Norris Tolson, the center's chief executive, said terms for acceptance were too onerous.

That is, they had to be approved as factual.

The Golden LEAF Foundation, which oversees half the funds North Carolina gets from a national settlement with cigarette manufacturers, in July set aside money for the Biotech Center.

Officials with the center wanted the money to counter what they called misinformation about the proposed lab, called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

The U.S. government is considering a site near Butner for a $450 million facility that would study large-animal diseases. Opposition has been fierce in Granville County -- one of several sites under consideration -- where residents fear the potential release of harmful pathogens.

Supporters have said such concerns are overblown. The Biotech Center, N.C. State University and other public and private groups have pushed for the facility, saying it would bring jobs and make the region a hub for top research.

A former Current staffer is doing a bang-up job covering the issue there...

Less than a month after receiving $262,000 in funding, Norris Tolson, president and CEO of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, has announced the Center is rejecting the free money from the Golden LEAF Foundation that would have been used to "educate the public" about the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

The federal disease research lab could be sited in Butner, about 25 miles north of Raleigh. The Center is an outspoken proponent of the NBAF, and a member of a consortium lobbying the Department of Homeland Security to locate it here.

In his letter to foundation president Valeria Lee, Tolson objected to the requirement that any information materials to be distributed to the public be vetted by the Foundation. "The prior submission procedure raises constitutional issues concerning impermissible prior restraints on speech protected by the First Amendment," Tolson wrote. (Download the letter: PDF, 564 KB.)

And then this bombshell: U.S. Rep Brad Miller withdraws his support for N-BAF:

U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, whose congressional district includes Wake and Granville counties, announced today that he is withdrawing his support for locating the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Butner

"I am today notifying the Department of Homeland Security that I do not support locating the National Bio Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) at the proposed Butner site. I have worked with other members of North Carolina's congressional delegation to urge the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to work closely with elected officials and citizens in Granville County to address concerns about the proposed facility.

The Government Accountability Office and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, among others, have raised sober, serious concerns about the facility that DHS has not satisfied. If democracy means anything, local elected officials speak for the people of their community, and local elected officials in Granville County now oppose bringing the facility to Butner. I cannot support bringing a federal facility to a community in my district that does not welcome it.

"I continue to believe that we must do the research that would be conducted at the proposed facility to protect public health and our food supply, whether at the current location at Plum Island or elsewhere, and that wherever the research is done it must be done safely."

That's one thing Texas officials (and likely economically disadvantaged Mississippi) have failed to do: ask any serious questions about the lab. Likewise, our daily newspaper hasn't bothered to report to the public that the current Plum Island location is — by Homeland Security's own multiple admissions — the safest site for this research, according to their DEIS (as we reported early last month).

Shame on the Express-News for their piss-poor disservice to their community. And shame on the economic and political boosters who have failed to allow the sheerest amount of skepticism to enter their minds or leave their mouths.

It's all very reminiscent of the smallest of small-town newspapering: You always cheer for the home team, after all. And jobs are jobs, after all. And sometimes it's not what you say, but what you refuse to allow to be said.

Posted by gharman on 8/8/2008 3:26:58 PM
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