Homeland Security to build Maryland biological defense center

A recently completed environmental review conducted by the Homeland Security Department found that a proposed biological defense center to be built in Maryland would pose "negligible to minor risks" to the health of workers and local residents, according to a notice published today in the Federal Register.

As a result, the department has decided to move forward with construction of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at the U.S. Army's Fort Detrick in Frederick. Construction is set to begin in summer 2006 and is expected to be completed in 2008. The facility is expected to cost about $130 million, according to reports.

"The NBACC facility will provide the nation with a much needed biocontainment laboratory space for biological threat characterization and bioforensic research," the Homeland Security Department said in a fact sheet separately released this week.

The planned facility would house the National Bioforensic Analysis Center, which is intended to help authorities identify the perpetrators of biological attacks, and the Biological Threat Characterization Center, which would conduct research to guide the development of countermeasures against current and future biological threats, according to the departmental fact sheet.

The new center is expected to be about 160,000 square feet in size, consisting in part of Biosafety Level-2, -3 and -4 laboratory spaces. About 120 researchers and support staff are expected to work at the center.

The Homeland Security Department decided to proceed with the new facility on Jan. 26, following an eight-month review of potential environmental impacts and public comment periods.

In the record of decision issued today, the department said the center would pose little negative impact on the surrounding environment and the health of workers and area residents, and would "allow DHS to address a critical national shortage in BSL-4 [Biosafety Level 4] facilities." What little health risk exists can be mitigated through application of existing safety guidelines, the notice says.

Several alternatives, such as constructing the facility on either private- or government-owned land outside of Fort Detrick, were rejected as "unreasonable," the notice says.

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