By Kevin Murphy
MANHATTAN, Kansas (Reuters) - The site of a proposed facility to fight animal diseases, including those which could be spread by bioterrorists, is little more than a parking lot today because of safety and budget concerns.
Construction of an ambitious National Bio and Agro-Defense Center in this Kansas university town is on hold due to the federal budget crunch and concerns about risks to livestock and human populations, especially in the event of natural disaster.
"When we were named as the site, I thought the battle was over and it was just a matter of moving ahead," said Ron Trewyn, who has shepherded the project along as vice president for research at Kansas State University.
Now, more than a decade after the September 11, 2001 attacks raised fears of bioterrorism on U.S. soil, an armed guard and steel perimeter fence protect idle equipment in the parking lot and a few utility sheds at the stalled construction site.
Further construction on what may or may not be the future home of America's primary facility for fighting dangerous animal diseases awaits two National Research Council reports due in late June on health and safety risks posed by the plant.
Those reports may determine the fate of the $1 billion project. One report will analyze the risks of the plant as currently designed, and the other will look at scaling back the project or scrapping it altogether.
Stop-and-go funding decisions by Congress, partisan gridlock in Washington and politicians with local interests in mind have also helped keep the project in limbo.
Three years ago, the Department of Homeland Security awarded the facility to Manhattan because it was in the U.S. agricultural heartland and the university had one of the nation's leading veterinary research programs.
The idea was to give the United States a sophisticated research center - joining only two others in Australia and Canada - to study and treat diseases in animals, either spread naturally, by accident or with malicious intent.
"Should an outbreak take place amidst our livestock, the devastation to our nation's agriculture - the backbone of our nation's economy - would be pandemic," U.S. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said at a meeting last week in Kansas of a steering committee set up to advocate for the project.
Animal illnesses studied at the facility would include the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease as well as the Nepha and Hendra viruses, swine fever and the Japanese encephalitis virus. The United States has not had a outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929.
The Nepha and Hendra viruses can be spread to humans.
BIOSAFETY 'LEVEL 4'
The facility, commonly called NBAF, pronounced "en-BAF," would replace the 50-year-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island, New York. Plum Island no longer meets U.S. research requirements to develop treatments for disease outbreaks, according to Homeland Security.
Plum Island has "Biosafety Level 3" labs for study of animal-borne diseases but does not have the space to add the more secure "Level 4" labs needed to study animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans, according to Homeland Security.
It would bring 300 high-paying jobs to the central Kansas community and generate some $3.5 billion in total revenue over a 20-year period, according to university-sponsored research.
But support in Manhattan for NBAF crumbled after the city was awarded the project after a group of residents, led by some retired university professors, raised concerns about diseases leaking from the plant in the event of natural disaster.
Manhattan is in an area of the country, known as "Tornado Alley," that is prone to twisters and where four years ago an EF-4 tornado with 170 mph winds damaged several campus buildings.
Manhattan has only one hospital and the community lacks specialists to treat a mass outbreak of animal diseases that strike humans, the National Research Council noted in 2010.
The risk is not worth the reward, said Tom Manney, a retired Kansas State University physics and biology professor who is part of a group called "No NBAF." "I have not seen a strong case for bringing it here on any grounds by anyone who wasn't in a position to benefit from it," Manney said.
The future of the plant could hinge on the two studies by the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences. The NRC issued a scathing report in late 2010, saying the risks had not been adequately studied.
The NRC said there is nearly a 70 percent chance over the 50-year lifetime of the facility that a release of foot-and-mouth disease could result in an infection outside the laboratory, impacting the economy by $9 billion to $50 billion.
The Homeland Security Department has ordered redesigns to make its laboratories and operations more secure, but this has pushed the projected cost to $1 billion from $415 million.
The building would have foot-thick concrete walls with double-woven re-bar to withstand tornadoes, Trewyn said.
Congress authorized spending $40 million on NBAF in fiscal 2011 and another $50 million in 2012, but President Barack Obama early this year put a hold on the funds pending the NRC studies and because of the federal budget crunch.
HEART OF CATTLE COUNTRY
The state of Kansas approved $105 million in revenue bonds for the project, of which $30 million has been spent so far on site preparation. Kansas State University built a $58 million Biosecurity Research Institute that would work with NBAF.
Three weeks ago, the House Appropriations Committee, which has a Republican majority, voted $75 million more for NBAF. The entire Kansas delegation to Congress is Republican.
But Tim Bishop, a New York Democrat who represents the district on Long Island where Plum Island is located, has led a fight to block the Kansas facility and expand Plum Island instead, citing the budget deficit and safety concerns.
"Before approving funding for NBAF, my colleagues wanted to know if it was safe to study the worst animal diseases in the heart of cattle country," Bishop said in a statement earlier this year. "There are too many risks - with consequences too great - to justify the costs of construction at this time."
Kansas cattle producers, who stand to be affected most if there were an accident, also have concerns. Kansas is the nation's second-ranking cattle producing state.
The Kansas Livestock Association is officially neutral on NBAF but is confident it would be built to safe standards, said Todd Domer, association vice president for communications.
The Kansas Cattlemen's Association does not want NBAF in Manhattan but is resigned to it being build, said association chief executive Brandy Carter.
"There is a lot of political pressure to put it here and at this point we believe it is coming," Carter said. "But if they are going to do it, they should do it right."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham)