An extraordinary consortium with partners from two states is pursuing an uncommon opportunity for regional development that could position Southern Kentucky and East Tennessee as a hub for homeland security scientific research, development and testing. The consortium, which includes Kentucky Fifth District Congressman Hal Rogers, Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, the University of Ken-tucky, the University of Tennessee, the University of Louisville and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will nominate a site in the Kentucky foothills to host a new federal bio- and agro-defense laboratory.

The U. S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to build a 500,000 square foot National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) that will serve as an integrated human, foreign animal and zoonotic disease research, development and testing center. Scientists and technicians at the NBAF will contribute to the nation’s homeland security mission by investigating animal diseases and public health threats from pathogens that affect both humans and animals. Most importantly, they will strive to develop diagnostic tests and vaccines for these pathogens. DHS recently took one of the first steps toward building this federal installation by soliciting nominations for locales that could host the laboratory.

Competition for the facility will be fierce. The Kentucky / Tennessee NBAF Consortium will probably be challenging some of the nation’s traditional research centers for the new national lab. However, by taking a regional approach to promote a site in Southern Kentucky, the consortium is reducing the advantages those centers may have.

Through cooperation and collaboration, the Kentucky/Tennessee NBAF Consortium highlights the strengths found in both states that could benefit the lab’s operation. By ignoring state borders and emphasizing resources, the consortium demonstrates the region has the research capabilities, the workforce, and the physical and infrastructure attributes necessary to accommodate the NBAF.

The University of Kentucky, the University of Tennessee and the University of Louisville are all significant research institutions with colleges that can link to the mission of the lab. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is one of the nation’s premier and historic research installations. Beyond this, within a 300-mile radius of the proposed lab site are some of the nation’s most respected veterinary schools, medical schools, colleges of pharmacy, schools of public health and colleges of agriculture. This environment supports the consortium’s case that the region can be a portal for synergies in homeland security science and technology.

The NBAF will be designed to assess and research evolving bioterrorism threats over the next half-century. Because of the nature of this work, the lab will deal with toxic agents. Depending on the final operations plan, the facility could require Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) Agricultural as well as Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory spaces. Both types of labs are designed for the greatest level of biocontainment protection, hygienic security and physical security. These labs are specially constructed and outfitted with custom equipment that isolates the organisms and prevents them from escaping the facility and endangering the public, livestock or wildlife.

The National Institutes of Health reports that over the past 31 years there have been no clinical infections from working with agents in BSL-4 labs at facilities supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and there have been no documented cases of a laboratory worker’s family members or the public acquiring a disease from lab operations.

The site nominated by the Kentucky/Tennessee NBAF Con-sortium to host the new lab is in a rural, sparsely populated section of Pulaski County, Kentucky.

However, the safety design of these facilities allows them to be built in urban, densely populated settings as well. For example, the two most recent BSL-4 labs (which require the greatest security) funded by the National Institutes of Health will be on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and on the Boston University Medical Center campus in Boston, MA. In Kentucky, the University of Louisville will build a BSL-3 facility on its Shelby Campus which is in a densely populated, commercial area of the Common-wealth’s largest city.

The Kentucky/Tennessee NBAF Consortium wants to bring the lab to Pulaski County to fortify the region’s role in the war on terrorism and expand a homeland security knowledge cluster. Already at the southern end of the district, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory houses directorates that contribute to homeland security solutions. As well, the Tennessee Homeland Security Consortium is based at Knoxville. In Kentucky, The National Institute For Hometown Security is located at Somerset and works closely with the Kentucky Homeland Security University Consortium. In addition, private sector companies in the region provide products and services geared to the homeland security market.

The consortium recognizes the lab can also be a catalyst for technology-based economic development and help forge the corridor’s economic future. Federal laboratories are magnets for scientists, engineers and technical support personnel—the drivers of the 21st Century’s knowledge economy. They make discoveries, create solutions and conceive inventions that become useful and beneficial products in the marketplace. Their productivity can fuel new businesses, lead existing businesses into new markets and, ultimately, build innovation, adaptability and sustainable vitality into the region’s economy. To the point, the lab is in a class of economic stimulators the region should welcome.

In addition to these broader benefits, the lab will provide immediate economic value. An economic impact study prepared by Dr. Paul Coomes of the University of Louisville relates the facility can be expected to directly support 410 jobs with an annual local payroll of $30.5 million when operational. The construction payroll is projected at $262 million.

The prospect of hosting a federal laboratory in Pulaski County presents a rare opportunity to begin molding new economic possibilities on both sides of the Kentucky / Tennessee state line. It stirs exciting expectations about regional progress.


This commentary was prepared by The National Institute For Hometown Security for the Kentucky / Tennessee NBAF Consortium whose members include Fifth District Congressman Hal Rogers, Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, the University of Kentucky, the University of Tennessee, the University of Louisville, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Southeast Kentucky Economic Development Corporation and Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation.)

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