In all matters of security on my Granville County, N.C., farm, I consult my Shetland sheepdog, Gretchen. She’s the first line of defense here, meeting every visitor with a ferocious bark or a wag of the tail.
She also monitors the airways for rogue hawks, buzzards, geese and other possible threats: A passenger jet at 30,000 feet is not exempt from her scrutiny. And she’s completely transparent. You can tell immediately if she perceives danger, if she’s happy, wants food or craves attention, and her track record is great.
If Gretchen had been with me at the town hall meeting in Creedmoor back in February, she would definitely have been barking. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center had come to answer our questions about the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a giant Department of Homeland Security project looking to find a possible home in Butner.
The Homeland Security representative told us that all research conducted at the facility would be transparent and that the results would be available. But under repeated questioning, he and members of the panel would not even tell us how many diseases now stored at Plum Island would be transferred here.
If you’ve ever tried to get documents from the DHS under the Freedom of Information Act, you know that transparency is not their strong suit. They’re much better at withholding information for reasons of national security. So will we really know what they’re doing at this facility? Developing germ-warfare agents? “Code orange: Sorry, can’t tell you. Oh, by the way, we at Homeland Security would like you all to provide us with a costly (tens of millions of dollars) backup power plant—which somehow didn’t make it into our budget.” Gretchen and I are worried about what else was left out of the budget. So much for transparency. Arf!
We were assured that many of our questions would be answered further down the road when the environmental impact study is released. Do I hear a low growl? This doesn’t smell right. Because if history is any guide, by the time the draft version of this study is released, DHS will already have chosen its preferred site. [Editor’s note: At press time, the document was due to be released soon.] So anyone waiting for the draft EIS before challenging the wisdom of building the defense facility in Butner will have more or less forfeited the possibility of having a significant impact on the decision. This is the ultimate lack of transparency. In Gretchen’s opinion, we might as well be chasing our own tails.
As we questioned Homeland Security’s ability to keep us safe, the panelists ducked, pointing to the sterling safety record at Plum Island and other facilities. But they left out a few things, such as the at least 75 accidents reported by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. They also failed to mention the 1978 breach of foot-and-mouth disease at the Plum Island lab or the fact that virtually every animal on the island had to be killed and incinerated. They didn’t mention Plum Island’s multiple citations by the Environmental Protection Agency for water-quality violations. They didn’t mention the huge amounts of bacteria being released into Long Island Sound, which led to the citations and fines. Nor did they mention that the Natural Resources Defense Council ranked Plum Island second in terms of EPA permit violations among facilities along the New York/New Jersey coast.
This disturbing track record, along with other DHS responses (think Hurricane Katrina), should give us pause. Can the Department of Homeland Security be entrusted with our future? Raleigh’s water supply, Butner Hospital and its residents, and the health and safety of our families and livestock are all at risk. So I’m sticking with Gretchen’s approach: Sniff out what doesn’t deserve my trust, and bark loudly in warning.
[Licensed acupuncturist Joe Pfister is a member of GNAT (the Granville Nonviolent Action Team). His wife, Jennie, has had Lyme disease. For more information on the campaign to block siting the NBAF in North Carolina, visit www.nobio.org.]