The Obama administration has put the brakes on a plan to build a new lab that studies contagious animal diseases, a decision that has pitted disappointed Kansans hopeful about growth against New Yorkers fighting to keep about 200 jobs at a Cold War-era facility on a tiny island.
Proponents say the new lab, estimated to cost $650 million, is needed to protect the nation's livestock industry, while skeptics argue that such an investment in an economic crisis is unwise.
"The prospect of taking a wrecking ball to a multimillion-dollar Homeland Security investment in the study of foot-and-mouth disease at Plum Island to accommodate another several hundred million-dollar research lab right in the middle of cattle country has always seemed like the height of irresponsible government spending," said Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, which focuses on environmental issues on eastern Long Island.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the New York-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, gushed when told this week that President Barack Obama recommended no additional funding for construction of a new biosecurity lab. Obama also directed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to reassess the viability of the National Bio- and Agro-defense Facility planned near Kansas State University.
"If nothing is broken, why are they trying to fix it?" Esposito asked of the Plum Island laboratory, which sits on an 840-acre, pork chop-shaped island about 100 miles east of New York City. "I think even the president realized it would be a big mistake to move. This is nothing but a boondoggle, a money grab that the president has stopped."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a House appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that the lab remains necessary and that Obama's budget request for the next fiscal year includes $8 million for research in Kansas. She predicted the project will move forward if Congress provides the funding.
"We've had trouble with getting the money for the NBAF for the last three years," she said in response to committee Chairman Robert Aderholt's question about whether Homeland Security is committed to a lab on the mainland. "It has been peer-reviewed and put in Kansas, near a lot of other resources. That makes sense to put it there."
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts said the state's delegation has been "working overtime, across party lines" on the lab project with federal agencies. Spokeswoman Sarah Little said Roberts remained focused on shepherding the lab through the appropriations process, calling it a "critical national security priority."
On the other side of the country - and the political aisle - Democratic Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose eastern Long Island district includes Plum Island, countered that Republicans would ordinarily be pleased that the president was halting potentially wasteful spending.
"In the fiscally constrained environment that we are in, I don't think there is the need to spend upward of $1 billion on a new facility when there is a perfectly good one, doing perfectly good work already here," he said.
Homeland Security, which took control of operations at Plum Island after the federal agency was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, has spent $35 million on improvements at the lab in recent years, including an expansion of large-animal research rooms, renovation and expansion of the necropsy facilities, and infrastructure and security upgrades.
The department has argued that a modernized lab in Kansas that could study diseases affecting both animals and humans is needed and that the Cold War-era Plum Island center, which studies only animal diseases, is approaching the end of its usefulness.
Officials in New York point to the recent upgrades - and the fact that dangerous human diseases are already being studied at places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta - as arguments opposing a new facility.