Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 3, 2006

States submit agroterror lab bids

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Christian Beckner on April 3, 2006

The AP reported yesterday on the submission of bids to build the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), which is being established as a result of HSPD-9 to augment and probably replace the capabilities of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. From the story:

Kentucky and Florida are among the states bidding for a proposed $450 million bioterrorism lab, a 500,000-square-foot facility at which scientists would study potential bioterrorism threats to the U.S. food supply and humans.

Along with Kentucky, which wants to put the center in rural Pulaski County, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Texas filed proposals with The Department of Homeland Security by Friday’s deadline.

Larry Orluskie, spokesman for DHS, said the more proposals may be added in the coming weeks as mail passes through a screening facility and is received. A short list of finalists will be announced in the fall, then environmental assessments will take place next year, Orluskie said.

I take the agroterrorism and animal disease threat seriously, but this is one planned expenditure where I’m very skeptical that the marginal benefit outweighs the marginal cost. $450 million is a lot of money for a new facility, and that doesn’t even factor in the operational costs after it is built, nor does it factor in the costs of decommissioning Plum Island, which I imagine could be significant. The effort seems inadequately coordinated with other investments in bioterror and agroterror-related facilities that are on the drawing board right now. And are there enough scientists out there in this field (or in graduate school today) who aren’t already fully occupied by work in another lab, and can staff this new facility at the requisite level of professional competence? I’m very concerned that this new facility is inconsistent with the “risk-based approach” that Sec. Chertoff has rightfully argued should inform DHS investment decisions.

Also, a few random questions:

  1. Why are all of the bids from southern (or near-southern) states? Is it because of a NIMBY-ite counterreaction elsewhere in the country?
  2. The article notes that bid submissions are perhaps delayed due to DHS mail screening. Shouldn’t the Department move away from a reliance on snail mail for time-sensitive submissions such as this one?
  3. Given that Plum Island might be decommissioned after the NBAF is built, why are they buying a brand-new 120-foot boat?
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