Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivers a lecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., Tuesday. (USDAgov/Flickr)
The National Bio and Agro Defense Facility, or NBAF, is important.
That’s what Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said after delivering a lecture at Kansas State University Tuesday.
Vilsack did not allude directly to the NBAF in his prepared speech, in spite of plans to put the controversial animal disease lab just north of the McCain Auditorium, where he was speaking.
During a later question and answer period, Vilsack said the Department of Agriculture would work with Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to fund the billion dollar project. Long term plans for the NBAF are up in the air after the White House did not recommend any new funding for construction of the facility in 2013.
Vilsack acknowledged budgets in Washington were “difficult and tight.” Still, he maintains that NBAF is a crucial project.
“I think it’s important for this project to be perceived as more than just a project for Kansas State or for the state of Kansas,” Vilsack said. “I think it’s a national priority and we’re going to continue to advocate for it with the Department of Homeland Security."
Building a new facility designed to study and contain animal diseases is imperative, Vilsack said, especially as the facility that currently studies animal diseases on Plum Island in New York gradually grows out of date.
“I will tell you that we currently have inadequate facilities and they will become more inadequate as time goes on,” Vilsack told Harvest Public Media’s J. Schafer earlier in the week. “It seems to me we ought to be looking for ways in which we can do this safely and do it in a location that would allow us to communicate quickly and to potentially provide assistance and help should, God forbid, we ever have a situation of Foot and Mouth Disease here in this country.”
An initial Department of Homeland Security assessment of the risks posed by an animal disease lab in Manhattan, Kan., found last year that there was a one-tenth of 1 percent chance that a pathogen could escape the facility, according to Vilsack.
“You can never be totally risk-free, obviously, in any location, but that makes it pretty doggone safe,” Vilsack told Schafer.
In 2010, however, the National Academies of Science released a much more critical report on the dangers of the proposed NBAF. The NAS is currently reviewing the latest Department of Homeland Security risk assessment.
There are vocal critics to the NBAF and opponents were quick to jump on Vilsack’s NBAF statements.
“He said he supported the lab,” a member of a group that opposes NBAF wrote in an email, “but he didn’t say he supported it in Kansas.”
For now, NBAF’s future – in Kansas or elsewhere – remains uncertain.