The report is a comedy of terrors.
The “Biological Hazard/Accident/Threat/Risk Model” used by Homeland Security rated the overall risk posed by placing the facility in Butner as “moderate,” the same as four other locations, with a fifth rated “low” risk.
The conclusion is far from reassuring, though, because Homeland Security did not fully consider two factors unique to the Butner site: unexploded ordnance and the presence nearby of more than 6,500 patients and prison inmates who could neither be evacuated nor protected in the event of an accident or terrorist attack.
The most stringent precautions imaginable are called for at the NBAF, which (as the report states) will be “appropriate for handling exotic pathogens that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease in animals and humans through the aerosol route and for which there is no known vaccine or therapy.”
Homeland Security tried to be reassuring about the unexploded ordnance. The scattered artillery, mortar and bazooka shells are a legacy of World War II when the 249-acre proposed site was part of a 40,000-acre combat training facility. “Recent investigations indicate the potential for unexploded ordnance is low, although institutional controls still remain on the site. Training for construction workers may be required … .”
But the danger is not limited to the construction workers. After work on the site is completed, undiscovered shells would remain nearby, available to potential terrorists.
Use of this ordnance in an attack on the proposed lab is not a scenario considered by Homeland Security. However unlikely it is (ordnance becomes unstable over time, so those attempting to dig up and transport a shell might unwittingly become suicide bombers), we must not forget that on Sept. 10, 2001, it seemed preposterous that 19 men armed with box-cutters would change the world — or that we would need a Department of Homeland Security to protect us from such attacks.
In another attempt at reassurance, the possibility of accidents is acknowledged. “There are very few scenarios that would result in animal or human disease, the exceptions being an over-pressure event resulting in loss of containment and a facility fire, both of which present a moderate risk … for distances close to the release.”
The site-specific risk analysis informs, “Within 3 km [kilometers] of the proposed site are significant areas of industrial and residential development,” and adds, “Numerous species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects … inhabit the area around the proposed site.”
You have to look elsewhere in the report to find that the C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center, home to 125 juveniles, borders the Umstead Research Farm, and the new 432-bed Central Regional Hospital is also within the 3-kilometer radius.
Omitted altogether from the 1,005-page report are these other Butner institutions and inhabitants: 4,287 inmates locked up inside the Federal Correctional Complex, including patients in the Federal Medical Center; Polk Correctional Institution, with a capacity of 1,012 inmates; Umstead Correctional Center, with a capacity of 114; the Murdoch Developmental Center, home to as many as 575 persons with developmental disabilities, and Our Children’s Place, a prison scheduled to open in 2009 for mothers, pregnant inmates and their children.
Likewise, while there is consideration of local livestock, none is given to the thousands of state and federal employees staffing these institutions.
Because “atmospheric modeling indicates that downwind transport is a credible scenario given a sufficiently large release of pathogens,” in the event of such an “event,” those not incarcerated or incapacitated could choose to evacuate.
But Homeland Security offers no plans for evacuating or protecting those living or working within Butner’s institutions, no standby convoy capable of moving more than 6,500 patients and inmates, not even a stash of duct tape to seal out airborne viruses emanating from the NBAF.
Describing the site as “surrounded primarily by agricultural activities and forests” while ignoring thousands of vulnerable persons nearby is not just bad “modeling,” it is unconscionable.
Durham’s opponents of the Butner site, whose protests might otherwise be dismissed as standard not-in-my-backyard responses, might find that their most persuasive argument is “Not in their backyard!”
(You may submit comments on the NBAF Draft Environmental Impact Statement online at www.dhs.gov/nbaf. Click on Public Involvement.)