With less than nine months before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decides where to site its disease research lab, proponents and opponents of the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility continue to plead their cases before government leaders and the business community.

Butner is among five national finalists for NBAF, as it’s known, which will study at least eight dangerous and potentially fatal diseases, including four that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

On Feb. 5, both sides petitioned the Raleigh City Council, which will likely decide later this month whether to support the project. The next night, Durham’s Environmental Affairs Board viewed a presentation by NBAF supporters; the board heard from opponents at its last meeting. The Durham board took no action, but may later request that specific issues be addressed in the draft environmental impact study, due out later this spring.

The Butner Town Council will discuss the project Feb. 7.

While federal heavy-hitters such as U.S. Rep. Brad Miller still favor the project, the Stem and Creedmoor town councils and the Granville County Commissioners have withdrawn their support. And citizen opposition to NBAF continues to spread from Granville County to neighboring areas, including Raleigh.

Opponents point out the safety and security concerns involved with managing such a facility, including its proximity to area water supplies and to institutions such as prisons, residential centers for the developmentally disabled and hospitals for the mentally ill.

Although the disease research lab will be located in Butner, about 30 miles north of Raleigh and 20 miles north of Durham, it will lie within the Falls Lake watershed, which supplies Wake County with drinking water. It is also within two miles of Lake Michie and the Holt Reservoir, water supplies for Durham and Butner, respectively.

Many residents’ concerns stem from incidents at NBAF’s embattled predecessor, Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. As documented in Government Accountability Office reports, which are public, there have been dozens of security and safety breaches at the center since it was built more than 50 years ago. The GAO testified before Congress last fall about the proliferation of similar labs and their potential dangers.

Plum Island, which has been jointly managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security for nearly five years, continues to operate.

At the Feb. 5 meeting, former Raleigh City Councilor Tommy Craven said of NBAF, “I support its constructionsomewhere else.”

After the council meeting, Kathryn Spann of the Granville Nonviolent Action Network said it’s important for the Raleigh City Council to take a position on the lab before Homeland Security issues its draft environmental impact study in the spring.

“It’s my experience that once a preferred alternative is identified, it becomes much more difficult for community stakeholders to have an effective voice after that,” she explained. “It’s my belief that Raleigh will have little, if any, voice if it waits that long.”

Meanwhile, the N.C. Consortia, which is lobbying for the site, have assured the public that the lab will be safe. Granville County Economic Development Director Leon Turner trumpeted NBAF’s estimated $1.6 billion economic benefit to the state and its potential shot in the arm to the region’s biotech and health sciences industries: “Let us move forward together into the biotechnology world of the future.”

Warwick Arden, dean of the N.C. State Veterinary School, said there has been “good-hearted misinformation” about the project, emphasizing that research conducted at the lab will benefit the health of animals in North Carolina and fill a national need: “We have been wanting and praying for a program like this for a long, long time.”

Additional reporting by Bob Geary.

Mark your calendars

Over the next two weeks, there are several important meetings and deadlines regarding NBAF:

  • Raleigh City Council will take written public comment on the federal lab until Friday, Feb. 15, at noon. The comments can be mailed to the city clerk’s office at P.O. Box 590, Raleigh, N.C. 27602; or dropped off at the office, located in Room 207 of the Upchurch Government Complex, 222 W. Hargett St.
  • The Council will discuss NBAF at its Feb. 19 meeting and could decide whether to support the project.
  • A town hall meeting sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21, at South Granville High School, 701 Crescent Drive, in Creedmoor.
  • Later this spring, DHS will release a draft environmental impact study for public comment. DHS will accept public comment on it for 60 days, and then release a final study. Thirty days after the final study is published, DHS will decide where NBAF will be located.