The other Manhattan project


State News

April 1, 2019 - 10:13 AM

The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility construction site in February. HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA/BRIAN GRIMMETT/KCUR.ORG

In the wake of Sept. 11, federal officials said the United States needed a new, state-of-the-art facility to defend against bioterrorism and stop diseases that could devastate the country’s farm economy and threaten human lives. They chose Manhattan, Kansas, as the site of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The plan was to have it up and running last year. But that date has fallen ever deeper into the future. At best, it’ll open in 2022, at a price that surpasses the original budget by $800 million. This is the first in a three-part series examining the project.


Part I: The Complex

Against the hum of backhoes and bulldozers, a fortress of concrete and steel buildings gradually rises on the north end of Kansas State University’s campus. 

The top-level federal biocontainment laboratory is designed to study the most infectious, exotic animal diseases — lethal to humans and capable of crippling the country’s livestock. They could hitch a ride from animal to animal or human to human. Hostile nations might even use the diseases to trigger mass chaos and possibly upend the U.S. food supply chain. 

But, right now, there aren’t any animals around here. Just the construction site, a self-contained utility plant and a bunch of trailers belonging to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and McCarthy-Mortenson Joint Venture, a contractor that’s building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

“NBAF is on schedule, on time and on budget,” said Tim Barr, who’s the on-site DHS project manager, and a native of McPherson, Kansas. 

Well, not exactly. There’s at least three years to go before NBAF even opens; it was supposed to in 2018. The $1.25 billion project has overrun its initial cost by hundreds of millions of dollars, partly due to needing stronger walls and barriers to prevent diseases from escaping. This is Tornado Alley, after all. 

Funding and safety aside, NBAF had the backing of an influential congressman from Kansas, as well as others who saw the facility as an anchor for the area’s animal health corridor and for the regional economy. 

Kansas won the project in 2009 after a fierce nationwide competition against five other locations. It didn’t take long for one of the losing competitors, a Texas consortium, to sue Homeland Security, claiming the decision was political and ignored the risk of those tornadoes. 

The suit was later dismissed by a federal judge, but there’s no question Kansas had a man in their corner. Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts had been shepherding NBAF toward the state ever since DHS was created in the wake of Sept. 11, and on through 2004, when then-President George W. Bush issued a directive about needing to protect against a terrorist attack on the nation’s food supply.

“All you do is put a handkerchief under the nose of a diseased animal in Afghanistan, put it in a Ziploc bag, come to the U.S. and drop it in a feedyard in Dodge City. Bingo! You’ve got a problem that could endanger our entire livestock herd,” Roberts said in a 2006 interview with KCUR.

Even now, Roberts, who has chaired both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, said the threat remains as urgent as ever, even if al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have all but disappeared from the headlines. 

“It’s got super bipartisan support,” said Roberts, who noted that his recent decision to retire after his term is up in 2020 won’t affect the project or its funding. “And even though we’re not hearing anything about terrorism, it’s still front and center of our security concerns.” 

Those security concerns were top-of-mind after a 2010 congressionally mandated review of the risk assessment stunned local and scientific communities.