Md. vies with 10 states for lab

$450 million project to protect U.S. food

May 08, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson and Jennifer Skalka | Nia-Malika Henderson and Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporters

Maryland's burgeoning role in biodefense research would grow significantly if it wins a national competition for a $450 million laboratory dedicated to protecting agriculture and food supplies against terrorism and disease threats.

The state has said virtually nothing about its hopes for landing the lab even as officials and business leaders have worked to persuade Washington to place it alongside the National Agricultural Research Center at Beltsville.

Last month, Department of Homeland Security officials began visiting the 17 sites across 11 states that are vying for the project. The list is scheduled to be narrowed to no more than five sites by the end of next month, with a final decision expected in November 2008.

The 520,000-square-foot lab would employ as many as 300 top-level researchers. It would focus on preventing and controlling animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth and classical swine fever through the use of vaccines and other measures.

The facility, which would replace the outmoded Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island, N.Y., also would assess and research evolving bioterrorism threats over the next five decades.

Aris Melissaratos, former secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said last night that the state has worked for the past couple of years to craft a proposal - and a broad-based partnership - that would win the facility for Maryland.

He said the consortium lobbying for the lab includes the University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute and Fort Detrick.

"This is a major, major coup for the state that wins it," Melissaratos said, noting that it would draw several hundred million dollars in government investment and boost the state's scientific community. "It's just another one of those federal agency jewels that we love to collect in Maryland."

Maryland already is a national biodefense research center, with high-security facilities at Fort Detrick near Frederick and at Aberdeen.

Last year work began on a $128 million National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. The 160,000-square-foot complex, which is expected to be completed in 2008, is one of several facilities planned for Fort Detrick, at an overall cost of $1.2 billion. Research goals include ways to prevent and counter the effects of germ warfare.

The budget for Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground has doubled over the past several years. Projects have included evaluating new terror technology and analyzing the Washington postal equipment contaminated in 2001 by mail containing anthrax.

Outside experts say scientists there also are secretly trying to develop nonlethal agents that can be used to disable hostage takers, for example.

The lab, scheduled to open in 2014, will be managed by the Department of Homeland Security, with joint input from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

"The idea is to create a next-generational agricultural defense facility with scientists from several agencies co-located in a state-of-the-art facility," said Christopher Kelly, a spokesman for Homeland Security. "They plan to develop vaccines and to provide advanced test capabilities for threat detection."

Supporters of the Beltsville location say it has the advantages of available land - a minimum of 30 acres is needed - and compatibility with the work being done there by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 7,000-acre research facility in northern Prince George's County specializes in biofuels, soil conditions, genetics of cattle and poultry, and threats such as e-coli, among other things.

In recent years, the facility has suffered staffing and funding cutbacks, and supporters see the new lab as a way to bolster the high-level agricultural work.

"We didn't back into this to get involved with a Homeland Security project; we are trying to protect people and programs," said John Peter Thompson, president of a non-profit organization of area business people and economic development groups.

"The Homeland Security lab would allow for cost-sharing that would alleviate some of the overhead drag on research positions. They have a fairly open remote spot ready to go."

Kelly said the Department of Homeland Security is assessing sites on four counts: access to research capabilities; access to work force; the ability of the consortium to engage in acquisition, construction and management of a facility; and community acceptance.

Officials visited the site April 27. Other states competing for the project are Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky, Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri and California.

nia.henderson@baltsun.com jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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