NBAF pick by Jan. 20 – Athens Banner-Herald

Feds to act before Obama takes helm


The Department of Homeland Security will pick a site for a proposed massive animal disease research laboratory before President-elect Obama takes office Jan. 20.

The final version of a study that will guide officials as they decide whether to build the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Athens or another site is scheduled to be released in early December, Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico said.

The site selection will come 30 days after the final Environmental Impact Statement is released, Verrico said.

“It is in our interests to get the final EIS done as quickly as possible so we can get the decision document done,” he said.

Federal officials do not expect the incoming Obama administration to alter or cancel the $451 million project, but Homeland Security Undersecretary Jay Cohen – a political appointee who is overseeing the NBAF – wants to make the call before President Bush leaves office, Verrico said.

A 1,000-page draft of the study was released in June that detailed pros and cons of building the NBAF at a University of Georgia-owned tract off South Milledge Avenue.

It also weighed in on the other finalist sites: Plum Island., N.Y., the home of an aging lab the NBAF will replace; and sites in Kansas, Texas, Mississippi or North Carolina. The draft study offered little indication of which way federal officials are leaning.

Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials visited the six sites during the summer and collected comments through August.

Homeland Security received more than 2,000 comment documents, some containing dozens of individual comments, on the draft study. The final version of the EIS will include new information gathered from the comments and at public hearings.

UGA officials say they are simply waiting to hear from Homeland Security. Since federal officials came to Athens in August for a final hearing, they have not had any contact with UGA, said David Lee, vice president for research and the state government’s point man on efforts to snag NBAF for Georgia.

State officials and UGA administrators still think they offered Homeland Security the best bid for the 500,000-square-foot high-security lab, Lee said.

“We still feel like we have a great offer on the table,” said Terry Hastings, spokeswoman for the UGA Office of Research.

UGA’s Animal Health Research Center, a lab similar to the NBAF where scientists will study animal diseases, some of which can pass from animals to humans, suffered a leak and flooding recently. Although no pathogens were released and officials say no one was in danger, the incident embarrassed the university because a citizen oversight group wasn’t immediately informed.

The leak won’t affect UGA’s chances to draw the NBAF, which will be run by federal scientists, not UGA, Lee said.

“The bottom line is, I don’t think anything has happened to change our chances one way or another,” he said.

The university changed its protocols to inform the citizens’ council of any problems at UGA labs, no matter how minor, Hastings said. Lee also is urging Homeland Security to form a similar board and offer public tours of the NBAF when it’s built, she said.

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Saturday, November 15, 2008