Infectious Diseases Study Site Questioned
Tornado Alley May Not Be Safe, GAO Says
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009
The Department of Homeland Security relied on a rushed, flawed study to justify its decision to locate a $700 million research facility for highly infectious pathogens in a tornado-prone section of Kansas, according to a government report.
The department's analysis was not "scientifically defensible" in concluding that it could safely handle dangerous animal diseases in Kansas -- or any other location on the U.S. mainland, according to a Government Accountability Office draft report obtained by The Washington Post. The GAO said DHS greatly underestimated the chance of accidental release and major contamination from such research, which has been conducted only on a remote island off the United States.
DHS staff members tried quietly last week to fend off a public airing of the facility's risks, agency correspondence shows. Department officials met privately with staff members of a congressional oversight subcommittee to try to convince them that the GAO report was unfair, and to urge them to forgo or postpone a hearing. But the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), decided otherwise. It plans to hold a hearing Thursday on the risk analysis, according to two sources briefed on the plans.
The criticism of DHS's site selection comes as the proposed research lab, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), was expected to win construction funding in the congressional appropriations process.
"Drawing conclusions about relocating research with highly infectious exotic animal pathogens from questionable methodology could result in regrettable consequences," the GAO warned in its draft report. DHS's review was too "limited" and "inadequate" to decide that any mainland labs were safe, the report found. GAO officials declined to comment on the findings.
The new developments started another round of accusations that politics steered DHS's decision in January to build the proposed lab in Manhattan, Kan. Critics of the choice argue that a Kansas contingent of Republican Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts and then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, aggressively lobbied DHS to pick their state. Records show that a DHS undersecretary and his site selection committee met frequently with the senators, one of whom is a member of an appropriations subcommittee that helps set DHS funding.
A Texas consortium that hoped to lure the DHS facility to San Antonio argues that the agency has wasted millions of dollars trying to justify its choice, and said the GAO's findings show that the selection method was "preposterous."
"They call it 'Tornado Alley' for a reason," said Michael Guiffre, an attorney for the consortium. "This really boils down to politics at its very worst and public officials who are more concerned about erecting some gleaming new research building than thinking about what's best for the general public."
DHS officials and Kansas leaders say the selection system, which began in late 2006, was always fair and open. Brownback has noted that George W. Bush was president in mid-January when his home state of Texas lost the competition.
"The process involved a transparent six-year process, run by career civil servants and punctuated with multiple public meetings near each finalist location," DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said.
The DHS lab would replace and expand upon the mission of a federal research facility on a remote island on the northern tip of Long Island, N.Y. Critics of moving the operation to the mainland argue that a release could lead to widespread contamination that could kill livestock, devastate a farm economy and endanger humans. Along with the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, NBAF researchers plan to study African swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever and other viruses.
GAO's draft report said the agency's assessment of the risk of accidental release of toxins on mainland locations, including Kansas, was based on "unrepresentative accident scenarios," "outdated modeling" and "inadequate" information about the sites. The agency's analysis of the economic impact of domestic cattle being infected by foot-and-mouth disease played down the financial losses by not considering the worst-case scenario.
The agency noted that the United Kingdom's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, which resulted from an accidental release at a biological research laboratory south of London. Six million sheep, cattle and pigs were slaughtered to stop the contamination, and the country's agriculture market, comparatively a fraction of the U.S. market, lost $4.9 billion.
DHS had cited a foot-and-mouth disease facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as evidence that doing this research on the mainland is safe. But GAO said that is illogical: The NBAF would have a less sophisticated method for containing releases than the Winnipeg lab, it said, but would handle as many as 10 times the number of animals.
Selecting a spot for the lab has been rife with political battling and vigorous lobbying from five states that were finalists. Though the general public repeatedly voiced concern about the safety of such research, elected leaders were seeking the $3.5 billion jolt that the facility was expected to bring to its host's economy.
Critics of the selection of Kansas note that DHS Undersecretary Jay Cohen and others met often with the state's senators. Brownback said this month that he had helped add $36 million to a Senate bill to build the Kansas facility, and that he would work for the same in the House.
"We fought hard for this funding, and I'm glad my colleagues in the Senate realized the significant role this facility will play in researching emerging diseases that could endanger our food supply," he said on his Web site.
In recent days, DHS science officials involved in choosing the Manhattan site, adjoining Kansas State University, told Secretary Janet Napolitano's top staff members that GAO exceeded its authority in reviewing the agency's risk assessment, according to internal correspondence shared with The Post.
Chandler confirmed that agency staff members told the Energy and Commerce subcommittee staff members in their meeting last Monday that DHS would prefer not to have a hearing now. DHS officials were not trying to avoid discussing the issue during the appropriations process, Chandler said, but wanted to avoid wasting the agency's and committee's time until they saw the final GAO report.
"This has nothing to do with politics," Chandler said. "This is about logical reasoning . . . and was in the interest of everyone's time."
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