Feds may delay lab decision – Hattiesburg American


WASHINGTON – The Bush administration’s lame-duck status could affect a long-awaited decision on whether to build a new federal research lab in Flora, and the choice is likely to be made now by the Obama administration.

A decision on locating the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility was expected in December, but Department of Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico said the agency might delay the decision until next year.

Mississippi Development Authority spokeswoman Melissa Medley said DHS’ delay concerns state supporters of the lab.

“We’re aware that if it’s pushed out, it can mean changes,” Medley said, including increases in the cost to build the laboratory.

Verrico said a final environmental impact statement – which would recommend one of the six sites in contention – would likely be released the first or second week of December and a final decision made 30 days later.

That means the decision on the biolab’s location could be made just days before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in.

But it’s more likely the decision will be made after Obama is inaugurated, said Lanier Avant, chief of staff to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-2nd District.

“We’ve seen that the (Department of Homeland Security) and the administration are now reluctant to move forward with a number of executive decisions,” Avant said.

The 500,000-square-foot laboratory is expected to cost the federal government $451 million to build and generate about 1,500 new construction jobs. Once operational, it also would pay $25 million in annual salaries to about 326 employees and create dozens of secondary jobs.

Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, a member of a coalition of advocates for the Mississippi site, said a delayed decision won’t hurt Flora’s chances.

‘I feel comfortable with whatever the day it’s decided,” O’Neill said.

Flora’s competitors are Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, N.C.; San Antonio, Texas, and Plum Island, N.Y., the site of an aging animal disease research lab.

Avant also said Mississippi’s application won’t be hurt if the Obama administration picks the site.

Mississippi’s application is so competitive on its merits, whoever makes the decision would be hard pressed to find it isn’t the best in the pack,” Avant said.

The new laboratory would conduct research into hoof-and-mouth disease, African swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever and the Hendra and Nipah viruses – diseases that primarily affect livestock but can spread to humans in rare cases. DHS officials said the facility might expand its work to include the study of other diseases.

The proposed facility has sparked substantial opposition in some communities competing for the lab. DHS has received about 2,000 public comments.

DHS spokesman Verrico said the comments “have really been a mixed bag.”

The most negative have come from Georgia and North Carolina, he said, while Mississippi, Kansas and Texas reactions have been more positive.

And in New York, home to the current lab, reaction to build an upgraded facility on Plum Island “has started to lean to the negative,” Verrico said.

The Butner, N.C., town council voted unanimously in August to withdraw its support for the plant because it said DHS has not addressed concerns about the plant’s safety and its impact on local roads and sewer systems – or how institutionalized residents would be evacuated if needed.

In San Antonio, Myfe and Jim Moore wrote the DHS that all seven members of their family would move if the laboratory is located there.

Some residents of Athens, Ga., were worried about an accidental release that could harm wildlife and humans. Others said it would make Athens a target for terrorists.

But few negative comments have come from Mississippi, where local officials, the Mississippi Development Authority, businesses and universities view the research laboratory as an economic boon.

Mississippi’s enthusiasm for the proposal by the Gulf States Bio and Agro-Defense Consortium, a coalition of the state’s universities, government, business groups and Battelle, a government contractor, prompted the state Legislature to approve an $88 million bond sale to purchase land at the lab’s prospective site at the Flora Industrial Park.

Dozens of Mississippians also have written DHS about their strong support for the facility.

We don’t have many opportunities come our way,” said Larson Frey, an assistant vice president at BankPlus in Belzoni.

Frey wrote the agency, “The best thing about our location is the willingness of people of all walks of life to embrace the project and be ready to help it to be successful.”

But Hazel Cunningham, a Flora attorney, was not persuaded by a presentation Department of Homeland Security officials and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials made in Flora in August.

But she said she realizes opponents of the lab are in a minority in Mississippi.

I think the majority of people are in favor of it, but I think they’re fools,” Cunningham said. “I think it’s dangerous and it would be two blocks away from my granddaughter’s school.”

Kristine Pitts, another opponent of the lab who lives in Flora, said public opposition has not developed because few knew of the proposal and those who did only heard about its benefits.

“It was kind of pushed through without much fanfare,” she said.

O’Neill of the Jackson chamber said the public’s support has boosted Flora’s chances.

“That’s a positive deal for us,” he said.