Does Athens want, need Homeland Security lab? 

By Ed Tant – OnlineAthens

“Why would a group of respected citizens, including business people, scientists, university administrators and politicians, attempt to recruit a Level 4 research facility that handles treacherous agents to our town? Simple: money.”

Do those words sound familiar? Were they spoken at the recent meeting here in Athens between concerned citizens and U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials who propose to build the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility right here in Athens, on a pastoral plot of land near the State Botanical Garden?

Actually, those words were written by Eddie Adelstein, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Missouri and an interim medical examiner in the state. His concerns were published in the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune on May 22, 2007, before a location in that state was dropped from consideration as a possible NBAF site. Missouri is called the Show-Me State, and Adelstein showed an understandable skepticism when he called laboratories like NBAF, for which Athens-Clarke County remains on the short list, “a high-tech facility that belongs in a safer place.”

No final site for the lab has been selected yet, but opposition to the facility is growing in areas where it might be built. In this area, NBAF opponents have formed a group called Athens FAQ: For Athens Quality of Life (www.athensfaq.org) to question and, if possible, stop the building of the Homeland Security facility. Athens FAQ has an uphill struggle ahead, because building the lab in Athens is supported by many monied movers and shakers at the University of Georgia, in the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and in the media in this city.

Still, the NBAF lab might not be built without a fight in often apathetic Athenstown. A Feb. 19 meeting between townspeople and backers of the NBAF facility from the university and Homeland Security drew some 500 concerned citizens, most of whom spoke out against the lab and peppered NBAF backers with much-needed questions about the facility. Although a Feb. 14 news release from the university promised that “(e)ach person approaching the microphone will be allowed one initial question and one follow-up question,” in reality follow-up questions were squelched at the Feb. 19 meeting.

The question I voiced at the meeting was, “Since the Bush administration has in the past altered and edited scientific reports that conflict with its agenda, led us into an Iraq war under dubious and ever-changing rationales, and pushed no-bid contracts for its corporate friends, how can the citizens of Athens and America be expected to trust a Homeland Security Department that is a creation of an untrustworthy administration?” I’m still waiting for an answer to that question. I’m not alone.

In our neighboring state of North Carolina last month, the Raleigh City Council voted unanimously to oppose construction of the NBAF in the nearby town of Butner, because of fears that it could contaminate a local reservoir. In January, the Granville (N.C.) County Commission withdrew its support because of growing opposition to the lab in the Tarheel State.

I was disappointed some years ago when an auto assembly plant that was eyeing Athens located instead in Alabama. Such a factory could have brought much-needed jobs to our area. I would not be disappointed to see Homeland Security and its NBAF lab locate far away from its proposed site here in Athens, where it might have a deleterious effect on the pristine beauty of the botanical garden, the river, Whitehall Forest and the rolling hills of the horse pasture where the lab would be built.

A letter printed in this newspaper on Feb. 22 used the hoary cliche of telling NBAF opponents to “love it or leave it.” Concerned citizens and longtime residents of this area are opposing the NBAF precisely because they do love Athens in spite of all its faults.

Before scenic farmland and forest are changed forever to construct a biohazard lab, let’s hope that the local powers-that-be will hearken to the admonition written by the poet William Wordsworth: “The World is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/ little we see in Nature that is ours;/ We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

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