Kentucky vies for bioterrorism lab
State joins forces with Tennessee to put facility in Pulaski
By John Stamper, Greg Kocher And Bill Estep
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITERS
FRANKFORT – Political and academic leaders in Kentucky and Tennessee will jointly compete against other states for a $451 million federal bioterrorism research lab in rural Pulaski County, U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers announced yesterday.
About 400 workers, including more than 200 highly paid scientists, would study some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens in the planned 500,000-square-foot lab, said Rogers, a Somerset Republican.
“This is an effort that could literally change the economic landscape of the region,” Rogers said in a morning news conference attended by political and academic leaders, including Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen.
With a Biosafety Level 4 designation — the nation’s highest — the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility will join a handful of other labs equipped to research bioterrorist threats, foreign animal diseases and other emerging public health threats.
Such facilities have been controversial in other parts of the country, where opponents have questioned the safety to both humans and animals should any of the diseases being studied escape from the laboratories.
While officials say there has never been an accident at such a facility, watchdog groups disagree, alleging that the government does not report them to the public.
The lab will not develop offensive bioweapons, said Rogers, who chairs the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
Rather, researchers will work to create vaccines and treatments for viruses that might be unleashed, purposefully or by accident, on the nation through its food supply. Such pathogens include Ebola, foot and mouth disease and the Hendra virus. (See glossary at right.)
The average salary of workers at the proposed 150-acre compound would be about $74,000, which would create $1.5 million in state income tax revenue each year, said Stan Cave, chief of staff for an ailing Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who was in the hospital and couldn’t attend the announcement.
Rogers said the lab would be a magnet for scientists and technicians from around the world.
The proposed site, owned by real estate appraiser Brook Ping, sits in the sparsely populated Mark-Welborn community about 12 miles northeast of Somerset, off a narrow road named Fish Trap.
The Somerset-Pulaski County Development Foundation has an option to buy the land for $2,600 an acre, or $390,000, said Carroll Estes, executive director of the group.
Ping said he had signed an option to buy the proposed lab site before the local economic-development authority approached him about possibly selling it.
Local officials, who were briefed by Rogers on Friday, promised yesterday to marshal support for the project through a series of public meetings.
Nearby dairy farmer Steve Wall, 34, will need some convincing. His Milky Way Dairy is less than a mile from the proposed site.
Wall said Pulaski County needs more good paying jobs, but he worries that the facility might have harmful effects on his family or dairy herd.
“I’ve got my concerns just like any normal human being would. We’ve all got our little herds, and we don’t want anything to happen to them.”