WASHINGTON -- Mississippi looks to be the top location for a new national laboratory to study some of the world's most virulent biological threats.
Internal documents obtained by The Associated Press show the Homeland Security Department swept aside evaluations of government experts in making the decision. Mississippi is home to powerful members of the House and Senate with influence over the agency.
Government experts have said the proposed site in Flora, Mississippi, is far from existing biodefense research programs and lacks ready access to workers familiar with foot-and-mouth virus and other highly contagious diseases.
But a Homeland Security official says in a 2007 memo he believes skilled researchers will move to Mississippi if the lab is placed in the state.
Besides Flora, Mississippi, the U.S. locations under consideration for the new lab are Athens, Georgia; Manhattan, Kansas; Butner, North Carolina; and San Antonio.
California, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin all scored higher than Mississippi. The nine sites rejected as finalists that also earned high scores than Mississippi's location were Leavenworth, Kansas; a different location in Athens, Georgia; two other sites in San Antonio; the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri; Beltsville, Maryland; College Station, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; and Tracy, California.
Scores for the five finalists:
- Granville County, N.C. -- 94
- San Antonio -- 91
- Manhattan, Kan. -- 91
- Athens, Ga. -- 90
- Flora, Miss. -- 81
Scores for the rejected sites, and comments from Undersecretary
- Leavenworth, Kan., 92. Strengths: Close to existing research programs and a skilled work force, extensive community support. Weaknesses: Close to Leavenworth federal penitentiary, which could
cause security problems.
- Athens, Ga., College Station Rd. site, 90. Strengths: Near research programs and scientific community at the University of Georgia, attractive land package. Weaknesses: Flood plain issues, nearby construction could have affected the construction schedule.
- San Antonio, SW Foundation, 88. Strengths: Near relevant research programs and a skilled work force, community acceptance. Weaknesses: A primate house for an existing lab would have to be moved and a a creek intersects the site. Water requirements would be costly.
- University of Missouri at Columbia, 89. Strengths: Near major research programs, universities, federal laboratories and private industry with skilled workers. Weaknesses: Community opposition. Close to residential areas.
- San Antonio-Brooks City (formerly Brooks Air Force Base), 90. Strengths: Near research programs and a skilled work force, attractive site, community acceptance. Weaknesses: no adequate buffer to adjacent residential areas. Near a wetland.
- Beltsville, Md., 88. Strengths: Near existing research programs and a work force with extensive experience in labs working with dangerous germs. Weaknesses: Problems with transfer of the land, owned by the Agriculture Department. Might be difficult to attract workers, given the other biocontainment facilities near Washington. Too many high security labs within 40 miles of each other, a possible problem in case of a terrorist attack.
- College Station, Tex., 86. Strengths: Near research programs. Weaknesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspended Texas A&M's federal research on some infectious diseases, after the school failed to report - as required by law - researchers' exposure to dangerous germs. May be hard to recruit and retain a work force, given the distance from major metropolitan areas.
- Madison, Wis., 85. Strengths: Near strong research programs in agriculture, veterinary medicine and human health. Weaknesses: Strong community opposition. Highly unlikely the proposed site would have sewer service.
- Tracy, Calif., near Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 84. Strengths: Near strong research programs. Weaknesses: Research programs not focused on the proposed lab's mission areas of agriculture, veterinary medicine and human health. Community opposition.
- Rankin County, Miss., 81. Strengths: Strong community acceptance, attractive land package, a private company's promise to recruit staff. Weaknesses: Day care center and homes nearby, causing potential issues of "environmental justice."
- Pulaski County, Ky., 77. Strengths: None listed. Weaknesses: Not close to research linked to the lab's mission, or a skilled work force. Isolated site. Significant community opposition.
- El Reno, Okla., 77. Strengths: Near some relevant research programs. Weaknesses: Unclear whether the site is near a "critical mass" of staff with needed expertise. Key institutions are some distance from the site. Disputed land ownership.