Monday Roundup: Worries About Biohazard Lab

Problems with the Kansas biohazard lab • Worker shortage in rural Alabama • Romney seeks out the rural vote • Gail Collins on "empty places"

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A special committee of the National Research Council (NRC) has found that the Department of Homeland Security is still misjudging the dangers of a new biohazard lab planned for Manhattan, Kansas. 

The Kansas City Star’s Dave Helling writes that the NRC report found that Homeland Security made “questionable and inappropriate assumptions” when it calculated the chances of an infectious pathogen’s release from the lab at less than 1 percent over 50 years. 

Homeland Security wants to close the old biohazard research facility, which is located on Plum Island in New York. The agency would build a new facility in Manhattan, KS. Opponents say that a facility that conducts research on such highly infectious pathogens as foot-and-mouth disease shouldn’t be built in the heart of the nation’s food supply. 

Meanwhile, however, senators from Kansas and Missouri continue to pressure the Obama administration to fund the project. They say that fears about release of contagions are “academic and theoretical.” Helling reports that in letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Mapolitano, Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran of Kansas and Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri urge the administration to release $90 million already set aside for the project.

“Delays to the timeline only result in increased costs for contracts, labor and materials,” the senators wrote. “More importantly, delays result in an increased risk on our nation’s security.”

The panel of scientists and academics, however, found that the latest analysis of the proposed lab’s safety was “inadequate in critical respects.” In its first risk analysis, Homeland Security said there was a 70 percent change of a release of foot-and-mouth disease from the facility over 50 years of operation. In an updated analysis, Homeland reduced that estimate to one percent.

A separate committee of the National Research Council is studying the need for an animal research lab in the U.S. That report is due this year.

• The Washington Post visits Albertville, Alabama, where local businesses are having a hard time finding workers after a strict, anti-immigrant law went into effect last fall. 

Reporter Pamela Constable finds that the local poultry processing plant is scrambling to fill jobs just half a year after a tough state law against illegal immigrants took hold and many Hispanics “vanished overnight….” The law worked to force immigrants without papers to leave Alabama.

The state’s unemployment rate has dropped from 9.8 percent to 7.2 percent and backers of the law say it is the reason. 

“Nevertheless, a variety of employers in Alabama said they have not been able to find enough legal residents to replace the seasoned Hispanic field pickers, drywall hangers, landscapers and poultry workers who fled the state,” Constable writes. “There was an initial rush of job applications, they said, but many new employees quit or were let go.”

• Interesting to see this fight brewing between a Midwestern Republican governor and the oil industry, as reported in the Des Moines Register. 

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is a big supporter of biofuels, and he sees a campaign by Big Oil to stymie the development of renewable energy.

“The petroleum industry has a lot of resources, and they don’t want to share the market with renewables,” Branstad told a crowd gathered in his conference room at the State Capitol before the governor signed a proclamation designating Friday as “Ethanol Day” in Iowa. “The future is bright, but it won’t be easy,” Branstad said.

• Stories about weeds resistant to herbicides continue to appear. Lindsay Calvert at DTN reports of a new study that finds this trend continuing. 

“The prevalence of herbicide-resistant weeds is increasing at a rapid rate throughout the United States,” said Sterling Liddell, vice president of food and agribusiness research at Rabobank International Food and Agribusiness Research and Advisory. “The problem with weed resistance is you don’t know it’s a problem until it’s a serious problem.”

The problem is especially apparent in corn and soybean fields.

• The Washington Post reports on a conflict between two senators on postal reform. 

Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, sponsored the original postal reform bill, which opened the door to dropping a mail delivery day two years from now. Sen. Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, has successfully included language in the Senate appropriations bill that would require the Postal Service to continue six-day a week delivery indefinitely.

Durbin’s language would also bar the Postal Service from closing small post offices in 2013 and would not allow the Postal Service to close mail processing facilities until 2014. Collins’s bill would not have barred the closing of the mail processing centers and would have allowed the closing of rural post offices, although it imposed several restrictions on when, where and how rural post offices could be shuttered.

Collins said she would not seek to have Durbin’s language removed from the appropriations bill, but that doesn’t mean she’s happy. “I’m just very upset and disturbed,” Collins said. “We dealt with that in our bill in a more sophisticated way and a better way.”

• The Los Angeles Times writes that Republican Mitt Romney is attempting to “cultivate the rural vote in battleground states.” 

“When you just look at where the votes come from, clearly a Republican candidate has to do well in the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas to carry states like Ohio,” said Russ Schriefer, a senior Romney campaign advisor. Thus Romney is traveling to smaller towns, what he calls the “backbone of America.”

Reuters calls Romney’s trip an exercise in “preaching to the choir.” 

• Excuse the editorial bluntness, but New York Times columnist Gail Collins is worthless. Here is her column on the politics of “Empty Places.” 

She says people in rural areas don’t want government intervention in anything. We could introduce her to the people who ask government for a fair marketplace for their crops and livestock; for safe coal mines; for open commodities markets; for control over coal strip mining and oil and gas mining; for telephone and broadband service; for fair distribution of education money and on and on, but why bother.

Maybe if government had actually delivered on any of these issues, there wouldn’t be so much mistrust out here.

 

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