FLORA — The news that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had chosen a site in Kansas — not Mississippi — to build its National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) came as a major shock to the members of the Consortium that has worked so hard to land the laboratory in Flora.
On Dec. 4, Gov. Haley Barbour received word of DHS’ choice. Barbour vowed the state would look to appeal the decision, adamant that the site in the Flora Industrial Park was the best location for the facility that will employ hundreds in high-paying jobs.
“We’re disappointed,” Barbour said. “We’re studying the environmental impact study (EIS) that was done at the staff level. We’re studying it with an eye toward appealing it. We’ve got a little time to prepare our appeal. We think we’ve got the best site with the best management system with Battelle, and the best set of partners.
“The bureaucrats who prepared the environmental impact study seemed to think that our partners in Iowa and Texas and Tulane couldn’t get on an airplane to fly over here to do work. They said it was too far away. Well, people do that everyday in government and private business. We’re looking at it very seriously, because we do have the best site. We’ll proceed accordingly.”
The proposed NBAF would research high-consequence biological threats involving zoonotic (i.e., transmitted from animals to humans) and foreign animal diseases, according to DHS. It would allow basic research, diagnostic development, testing and validation, advanced countermeasure development and training for high-consequence livestock diseases.
The NBAF is expected to employ approximately 400 people, including more than 200 scientists as well as technicians and support staff, providing an average salary of approximately $75,000 per year.
Competition for the project has been keen. There were originally 29 sites in the running for NBAF, including three sites in Mississippi (Hinds County near Byrum, Rankin County near Brandon and Flora). That list was pared down to five – Umstead Research Farm in George County, N.C., Texas Research Park in San Antonio, Texas, University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and the Flora Industrial Park. (DHS also studied an environmental impact statement for Plum Island, N.Y., as well as an environmental impact statement (EIS) for not building the NBAF at all.)
Mississippi has gone all out to land the laboratory. It formed the Gulf States Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Consortium, comprised of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), Governor’s Office, Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, the Mississippi congressional delegation, along with the University of Mississippi, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Mississippi State University, Jackson State University, Tulane University, Tulane National Primate Research Center, Iowa State University, University of Texas Medical Branch, Tougaloo College and Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus, Ohio-based nonprofit with expertise in running government-sponsored laboratories.
Since 2006, the group has worked hard to land the NBAF in Flora, and they are reluctant to just give up now. There is a little time for appeal — DHS is not expected to release a formal record of decision until Jan. 12, 2009.
“We are reviewing the Department of Homeland Security’s recently released National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility EIS,” said Gray Swoope, executive director of the MDA. “No one can look at Mississippi and say that we had an inadequate proposal. The research dream team offered by the Consortium is second to none.
“We studied DHS’ criteria and delivered what they asked. In addition, our Legislature quickly approved a competitive incentive package, and the cost for site development was the lowest among the states competing.”
Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, has been one of those at the forefront of the state’s efforts to land the NBAF. He said he and the rest of the Consortium are far from defeated.
“We’re not done yet,” O’Neill said.
On Dec. 9, O’Neill was in Washington working on the possible appeal of DHS’ decision. He called his trip a “fact-finding” mission, and met with Mississippi’s congressional delegation to see where exactly the state stood. That information is needed by the state to determine whether or not a formal appeal will be pursued.
“We’ve just put in so much time and effort, this is something we just can’t walk away from and say, ‘Oh well, we didn’t get that one,'” O’Neill said Dec. 10 after returning from Washington.
O’Neill had not had time to brief the other Consortium members about his trip when he talked with the MBJ, and, thus, was guarded in his responses. But he did allow that he was “re-energized,” and said, after weighing all the factors, felt an appeal was probably in the offing.
One ace Mississippi has held is Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). The Second District congressman is chairman of the House’s Homeland Security Committee, and it was felt his position would carry a lot of weight.
Multiple phone messages and e-mails to Thompson over several days were not returned.
O’Neill did not meet with DHS on his trip.
On the other side of the issue, DHS is adamant that its selection process was solid.
DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology Jay Cohen said, “The assessment process was extensive, engaging experts within and without the government as well as each potential site community, and this final report weighs the input from all interested parties.”
DHS said facility design work would begin in 2009, and construction would commence in 2010. It expects the NBAF to be fully operational by 2015.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.