J. D. Heyes
Friday, March 16, 2012
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is set to begin construction on a new high-risk bio-weapons research facility on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, though critics say the decision is fraught with risk because of the potential for damage from nearby earthquake fault lines.
In a statement on its Web site, DHS said it needs the new facility to replace an aging one located at Greenport, N.Y.  That facility, known as the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, has been in operation since 1954 and is nearing the end of its useful life.
According to the department, $54 million has been approved for the construction of the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The new facility will feature research on biolevel 3 and 4 viruses – some without any known cures – and other potentially dangerous materials, though department officials have downplayed any potential threats.
The problem, critics say, is the location and the inherent seismic and weather-related disasters that could befall the facility, wreaking havoc on the surrounding population and beyond – issues the government seems to be downplaying.
Painting lipstick on a pig
“The United States works on the frontline of livestock animal health research to defend against foreign animal, emerging, and zoonotic diseases that could threaten the U.S. livestock industry, food supply, and public health,” says Homeland Security Under Secretary for Science and Technology Tara O’Toole, in a departmental risk assessment posted online . “To address congressional requirements, this detailed, updated risk assessment reaffirms that we can build a safe and secure facility to meet this important mission.”
The department contends that, according to its risk analysis, “calculated risks have been significantly reduced by incorporating mitigation measures into the risk assessment and updating the analysis to allow for a cumulative risk calculation.”
In other words, DHS says it is prepared to adopt a facility design that includes “significant changes beyond the industry standard to reduce risk.” Reducing risk isn’t, of course, the same as eliminating it.
All of this babble is, of course, designed to make us feel better about having a plant that conducts research on incurable viruses located smack dab in the middle of a volatile region of the country. What the department isn’t saying is that the part of Kansas being considered for this new facility is prone to a number of natural disasters and occurrences, each of which could cause considerable damage.
“Manhattan, Kansas, faces a number of worrisome hazards that should influence the architecture and construction of the BSL-4 laboratory. These hazards include flooding, dam failure, earthquakes, and tornadoes,” says an assessment by theSuburban Emergency Management Project(SEMP) , located in Chicago.
The last time the region suffered major flood damage was in 1951, but, SEMP notes, the area is still in a flood plain and, given the record floods last summer in neighboring Missouri, the potential for disaster is there.
Also, SEMP notes that while “Kansas is not widely known as seismically active,” it “boasts the Humboldt fault zone, which underlies Turtle Creek dam and Manhattan,” a region the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has deemed a “localized seismic hot spot.”
“An estimated maximum earthquake magnitude of 6.6 could occur in the area of the Tuttle Creek dam, causing liquefaction of the foundation sand beneath the dam, large deformations of the dam, and dam failure,” said SEMP’s assessment of the proposed new biodefense facility. “The consequences of a breach of the Tuttle Creek dam include rushing water at 381,000 cubic feet/second (six times the rate in 1993) moving toward a population at risk of 13,000 people.”
In addition, the area is known for its tornadoes. According to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, the region in and around the proposed site features an average of five to seven tornadoes a year.
“Riley County, Kansas, home to Manhattan, is well known for tornado touchdowns. For example, on June 11, 2008, Manhattan sustained extensive damages but no injuries when an F4 nighttime tornado ripped through it,” said the SEMP assessment.
Sources for this article include: