Neighbors raise biodefense lab concerns
Leavenworth An effort to land a $450 million biodefense lab in a rural area near Fort Leavenworth hit a public-relations snag Wednesday night, as dozens of nearby residents voiced concerns about the project at a public meeting.
The tone for the meeting was set by the first question, asked by resident Glen Berry. He wanted to know whether the type of risk classification given to the lab, known as BL4, is the highest there is under federal guidelines.
"If you have a problem over there, it's going to be a big problem. That's the way I'm seeing it," he said.
The lab would be cleared for the highest level of risk, although officials said not all of the work there would be of that grade.
Other neighbors voiced concerns about topics including traffic, terrorism, property values, annexation and whether the lab would restrict access to their land. Those at the meeting described the site under consideration as a 178-acre plot of rural land near the northwest boundary of the fort, that is now privately owned.
"Nobody came around and mentioned that this was under consideration. I don't know what you're asking for. I assume you're going to build a building?" resident Matt Broaddus asked. "You've given me no reason, not one specific reason, to support it."
Kansas is undertaking an aggressive effort, led by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, to land the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposes to replace the outdated Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. Two Kansas sites, one in Manhattan and one in Leavenworth County, are among the 18 finalists nationwide for the project.
The meeting Wednesday night at Salt Creek Valley Intermediate School was hosted by Leavenworth County Development Corp. A handful of leaders spoke about the benefits of landing the lab - including an estimated 1,500 construction jobs, 250 to 500 scientific jobs, and $100 million pumped into the community each year.
"I think this is clearly a seminal opportunity for the state of Kansas and specifically for Leavenworth County," said state Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing.
But audience members were skeptical. Ray Tuttle asked how many of the jobs at the lab would actually go to people from within the community.
One man stood up and said the proposed lab could become a terrorist target. Don Magee drew applause from the crowd when he asked why it wasn't being proposed for federal land.
"The fort has plenty of land," he said. "Hundreds and hundreds of acres all around the fort are vacant. Put it on their land."
Speakers at the meeting reassured crowd members about the safety of the lab. Jerry Jaax, associate vice provost for research at Kansas State University, described his experiences working in similar facilities and, when one crowd member asked whether he would take his child through the lab, answered "absolutely"
"I would not hesitate to have a house on the perimeter of this facility," he said.
Wilk said there was still time to resolve neighbors' concerns.
"We are early on in the process. I think it's very appropriate that we're doing this," he said. "This is a long way from being a done deal."
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