Feds say proposed biohazard lab in NC had wide support

Published 5:07 pm Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A federal agency rated a North Carolina site last year as an excellent place for a proposed biohazard lab because of local support, but that was before local governments and a congressman voiced strong opposition.

The 36-page memorandum from the Department of Homeland Security was prepared in July 2007. One year later, there was vehement opposition when the agency held hearings on an environmental report near the proposed site in Granville County.

The county Board of Commissioners, which initially wrote letters of support for the lab, backed away in January.

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Board Chairman James Lumpkins said Monday the commissioners had thought the lab was a good idea, but opponents raised questions about water supply safety and concerns about patients, employees and prisoners at government facilities in Butner.

The board asked Homeland Security officials to come to the county and address the concerns and “weeks and weeks passed and we had no reply from them.”

“We decided if you want to put something in our county and you don’t want to come and give truthful answers we will withdraw our support,” he said.

Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., had backed the proposal despite some nagging concerns. He changed his mind and withdrew support because the local governments, including two towns in southern Granville County, were against it.

“I am not going to work to bring a facility into a community that does not want it,” Miller said, adding that he doesn’t believe all arguments against the lab. He bases his stance on the local government opposition and concerns raised by several other federal offices.

Miller said local officials at first “were enthusiastic, every one of them.”

Next, the Raleigh City Council opposed it, citing concerns about safety of water that flows into its main reservoir.

The site is on 195 acres at Umstead Research Farm in Butner, 36 miles northwest of Raleigh. The report said the site was ranked ‘excellent’ and had the highest numerical score at 94. A site in Mississippi had the lowest score at 81 but has been named as one of five top choices for the $450 million project.

At one level, support for putting the project in North Carolina was strong enough that a foundation that manages some state money gave more than $260,000 for supporters to buy newspaper ads to tout the project.

Earlier this month, the N.C. Biotechnology Center said it would refuse the money from the Golden Leaf Foundation to fund education about the proposed lab.

The center is a member of a consortium that includes N.C. State University that is supporting the lab, which Homeland Security said is needed to replace a lab on Plum Island, N.Y. The group said the lab would boost the region’s scientific reputation.

The consortium said last week it will “evaluate its position following renewed expressions of concern” over the project.

Other lab sites are being considered in Manhattan, Kan.; Athens, Ga.; San Antonio; and Flora, Miss. Another alternative would be building a new research lab on Plum Island.