Department of Homeland Security officials were strafed with dozens of questions during Thursday’s three-hour town hall meeting on the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. Yet the six-month debate over whether Butner is an appropriate site for the disease-research lab boils down to one question: Can Homeland Security be trusted to protect people and the environment?

For hundreds of concerned area residents, the answer is a resounding no. Homeland Security officials convened the extra session in the name of “transparency,” but it was also an opportunity for damage control, as opposition to NBAF has become more entrenched. (Homeland Security also held a meeting earlier this month in Athens, Ga., another of the six potential sites, where opposition is also particularly strong.)

“I respect your passion,” said Jamie Johnson, Homeland Security director of national labs and NBAF program manager.

Although the $450 million lab is backed by the N.C. Consortium—powerful university leaders, academics, the biotech industry, Congressional representatives and agri-business— NBAF was dealt a setback earlier this week when the Raleigh City Council voted not to support the facility. Since last fall, Creedmoor, Stem and Granville County elected officials have also withdrawn their support. The site’s proximity—within two to five miles—of Durham and Raleigh’s drinking water supplies have driven much of local officials’ concerns.

At NBAF, researchers will study eight potentially fatal pathogens, including those that infect animals and that can be passed from animals to humans, known as zoonotic diseases. This research, Homeland Security officials say, will help protect America’s food supply and farms from diseases that could economically wreck the agriculture industry.

“We will not study anthrax, Ebola, the plague or smallpox,” Johnson said.

However, when pressed by meeting moderator Frank Stasio of WUNC, Homeland Security officials acknowledged the list of diseases could change or expand depending on what new pathogens or threats could emerge.

“Yes or no?” Stasio asked repeatedly.

After several roundabout answers, Johnson said, “Yes. If threats change, we would look at the list.”

Research on any new diseases, noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Tammy Beckham, would be limited to those originating in or affecting animals. Beckham is the director of Plum Island Animal Disease Center, NBAF’s predecessor off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.

Homeland Security officials’ reluctance to answer the question underscored the image problems that have chronically beset the agency and the proposed lab. Communication between Homeland Security and local governments has been erratic; many citizens have complained that last September’s scoping meeting, also hosted by Homeland Security, was a dog-and-pony show, at which an obsequious N.C. Consortium flattered agency officials. The list to speak was front-loaded by powerful officials, while opponents, most of them citizens, were relegated to commenting at end of the meeting, which lasted until nearly midnight.

Comments from that federally mandated scoping meeting are part of the public record; however, since Thursday’s town hall meeting was not required by federal law, none of that community input will be included in the official comments about the site. Public mistrust of Homeland Security also stems from the history at Plum Island, which, according to Government Accountability Office reports, has consistently been plagued with safety and security breaches for more than 20 years.

Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have jointly managed Plum Island since 2003.

In addition, the overarching disorganization and underfunding of Homeland Security make NBAF a tough sell. For example, Neil Goldstein, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, testified before Congress earlier this month that the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for guarding facilities such as NBAF, is in such disarray that federal facilities could be exposed to a high risk of crime of terrorist attack.

The protective service’s problems have only worsened since Homeland Security took over the agency in 2002, according to the testimony.

Larry Barrett, a veterinarian who directs Plum Island, says that facility has more than 60 guards, a combination of federal, local and contract security firms. “We have a good relationship with the Federal Protective Service,” Barrett said.

However, a December 2007 GAO report concluded that there was no procedure at Plum Island for checking criminal backgrounds of contractors and visitors entering the lab. Moreover, the report stated that although Homeland Security said it was working on an agreement with the Federal Protective Service, that agreement has been delayed because there is no money in the current Homeland Security budget to pay for federal guards on the island 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Homeland Security officials emphasized the facility’s design would include additional safety and security measures—known as a “box inside a box”— and training for NBAF staff on protocols to follow in case of an outbreak. Any pathogens or specimens would be transported in special waterproof containers that could withstand being dropped from more than 25 feet.

In addition, officials said water would be pre-treated to remove pathogens before it would be sent to the South Granville County wastewater treatment plant.

Homeland Security will release the draft Environmental Impact Statement in May and take public comment for 60 days. DHS will also hold a second meeting about the draft EIS in June. Jay Cohen, under secretary of Homeland Security, will decide the lab’s location. In addition to Butner and Athens, the other sites under consideration are San Antonio, Texas; Flora, Miss.; and Manhattan, Kan. The lab could also stay at Plum Island.

Johnson said Butner made the short list because of its proximity to N.C. State’s veterinary and agriculture schools, Research Triangle Park and the biotech industry. However, one man noted that the federal government owns more than 5 million acres of land in Nevada, a desolate area where NBAF could be sited.

“Why here?” he asked. “Why not Nevada?”