Kathryn Spann Guest Columnist

The Herald Sun

The Consortium that wants to bring Homeland Security’s National Bio and Agro- Defense Facility, or NBAF, to North Carolina trumpets the benefits it will bring to this state, and downplays the potential consequences. They advise us to wait until Homeland Security issues its Environmental Impact Statement to learn what the worst case scenario will be if one of those diseases escapes the lab.

But what’s the best case scenario? On closer examination, it’s not the rosy picture that NBAF’s local promoters claim. They tell us it will bring up to 500 jobs, which is wide of the mark: Homeland Security says the NBAF will employ a maximum of 350. And who’s getting those jobs? In Homeland Security’s recent “town hall meeting,” NBAF program manager James Johnson said that scientists and lab technicians at the existing lab in Plum Island, New York will get first dibs on the jobs at the NBAF — not North Carolina residents.

Johnson also told us that the non-scientific jobs will probably be staffed by a private contractor, most likely Alaskan-owned Field Support Services, Inc. FSSI’s Web site touts its operation of Plum Island’s power plant/utilities node, its management, maintenance and repair of the facility, including the bio-containment systems and incinerator, and its provision of facility security guards. Presumably, the reason to have these services performed by an outside contractor is because they can do so more cheaply than the government, without the burden of federal benefits and job security. But what happens to those jobs and our safety when they need to cut costs to meet their profit goals?

Speaking of jobs, where did the Consortium’s number of 1,000 to 1,500 construction jobs come from? Not from Homeland Security. Even assuming that number is right, how many of these jobs are “in and out,” like excavators, pavers and roofers? Those trades will be at the site for a few months at best. And will a North Carolina construction firm get the job? An Atlanta architect has already been hired to provide the design services for the NBAF. A Missouri-based construction company did the work on the new BSL-4 lab at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Nothing requires or predicts that an in-state construction firm will be awarded the NBAF job.

What about the $1.65 billion over 20 years that the Consortium says NBAF will bring to North Carolina? They rely on a one-page analysis prepared by the North Carolina Department of Commerce. We can’t see from that one page all of the assumptions the Department of Commerce used, but some mistakes jump out. They left out all the costs to the taxpayers. Where’s the cost of the 100-plus acres of state land we’ve promised Homeland Security? Also missing are the costs of roadway improvements, additional burdens on water and sewer infrastructure and training first responders for a new situation, all of which our taxpayers must bear.

The department’s analysis also swings wide on the number of jobs at NBAF, assuming 400 jobs instead of Homeland Security’s 250-350 estimate. They stretch it even farther, crediting the NBAF with a total of 732 jobs, all treated as having the same economic impact. They multiply this woefully inaccurate job number to get their $1.65 billion estimate.

Commerce’s economic model was designed for use in deciding whether to award multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded “Job Development Incentive Grants” to large corporations considering building a facility in North Carolina. This model has been widely criticized because it results in a much higher calculation of economic benefits than other states’ models. The result is that we promise too much taxpayer money to lure corporations here like when North Carolina offered Dell $242 million to build here when the next highest offer was $37 million from Virginia.

But the NBAF doesn’t even promise the same benefits that a corporate facility might. As a government entity, it won’t pay property or income taxes to the state. And its operations — infectious diseases research — do not include the production of a salable product or service. In short, NBAF is not in the business of making money.

However, NBAF wants a lot of money from North Carolina’s taxpayers. Homeland Security recently asked the state to pick up the tab on an unpublished wish list of items, including a power plant/utilities hub for the NBAF with a ballpark cost of $100 million. State leaders, to their credit, have declined to promise a power plant, but what about the rest of the wish list? And if the federal government cannot budget adequately for NBAF’s construction, how can we expect adequate funding for maintenance over its 50-year lifespan?

The Consortium suggests that NBAF will be good for our $60 billion a year agriculture industry because it will be able to diagnose foreign animal diseases more rapidly than an out-of-state lab. But the Rollins Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Raleigh, which was founded in 1950 to diagnose livestock diseases and prevent “outbreaks of catastrophic foreign animal disease by early detection,” expects to have the ability to diagnose foot-and-mouth disease, the most financially devastating threat to the livestock industry, within the year — long before NBAF would be finished.

Indeed, NBAF would bring those catastrophic foreign animal diseases to North Carolina for the first time. Not one of the eight diseases Homeland Security lists as NBAF examples exists in the mainland U.S. What happens to the state’s economy if those diseases get out? Last year, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England was traced to a sewer leak at a government high-containment biolab. Though the losses from that outbreak are still being tallied, a 2001 outbreak led to the slaughter of more than 6 million animals and the loss of more than $16 billion. The only outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.S. since 1929 occurred at Plum Island and was luckily contained by the island’s ocean perimeter.

North Carolina’s taxpayers and elected officials don’t need to wait for the EIS to know that the NBAF is no gift to our state.

Durham native Kathryn Spann recently returned to northern Durham County to run a family farm after years as a commercial and constitutional lawyer in New York City.