Granville Non-Violent Action Team (GNAT), organized during the 1990 struggle against the ThermalKem hazardous waste incinerator, was reactivated in September at a meeting with some of the team members from 1990 and new members from several counties across North Carolina. The organization’s purpose in revitalizing is to stop the proposed National Bio Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) lab, which would bring a number of foreign animal diseases to a site on the Umstead Research Farm in Butner for study, including some known to be transferrable to humans.
GNAT and other organizations helped to organize several hundred comment letters and emails to the federal Department of Homeland Security before a September 28th deadline. An earlier public “Scoping Meeting” had drawn hundreds of people to South Granville High School, only to be treated to an extend show of public officials who praised the proposed facility as an economic opportunity for the region, dismissing concerns of many of their constituents.
This display, and the fact that most public officials left the meeting after speaking, angered many local citizens who attended the meeting and spoke up during the public comment period. . “There’s not enough oversight in the world to make me feel safe with this in my community, and if there were, we’d be sacrificing too much of our freedom and public transparency,” said Elaine McNeil, who spoke critically at Tuesday’s meeting about the role that most elected officials played in the process. The site at Butner also raises significant environmental justice concerns, as there is a large population which could be impacted in nearby federal jails or state mental facilities.
Only one official who spoke during the public comment period, Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss, showed evidence of reaching out to hear the concerns of his constituents. In a statement that revealed much about the Consortium’s process before the Tuesday Scoping Meeting, he acknowledged that he was “breaking promises” to some of the proponents of the facility when he decided to oppose the NBAF siting in Butner.
Working with a network of organizations, GNAT will be educating the public about the diseases that Homeland Security recently acknowledged will be studied, security and accidents at other BioSafety Level-3 and -4 facilities, and the potential impacts of siting such a facility in south GranvilleCounty. The group will also counter claims by the NC Consortium for the NBAF that the facility would not pose serious risks to the local population, agriculture, or environment. There is significant local opposition to the site, voices that GNAT will help to raise publicly.
“It doesn’t make sense to put a facility that represents a significant potential bio-hazard to the surrounding community in a mainlandU. S. location with a mild climate where any escaped organisms could thrive,” says Bill McKellar, a pharmacist in the small city of Butner. That’s where Homeland Security and a “NC Consortium” of biotech, agricultural industry and academic interests have been working to get such a research facility built.
McKellar continued, “Even if there is a need for such a facility, all of five sites they are looking at were proposed by groups of interests which are pitching it to local and state officials as an economic development opportunity, not based on protecting the security of host communities. The array of local and state officials and even Senators and Congressmen, who took up the first hour of the public meeting to evangelize for the proposal, were not interested in staying to listen to concerns of opponents. It’s clear this has not been a democratic process.”
GNAT’s efforts back in the 1990’s prevented the siting of hazardous waste incinerator near Oxford in central GranvilleCounty, raising statewide awareness of the potential impacts of such a facility on the surrounding community’s health and safety and even on the local economy. The land that had been investigated by state officials as a site for the incinerator was purchased by hundreds of opponents of the project and has now become the publicly owned GranvilleEnvironmentalPark, including recreational facilities.
Hope Taylor is a south Granville resident and small livestock farmer who lives about 9 miles from the current proposed Butner site for the NBAF, and executive director for Clean Water for North Carolina, based in Durham. “If, as Homeland Security officials say, it’s about protecting our food supply, that’s not a national security mission; it’s an international one. Such a facility should be sited by an international consortium at a more isolated location with “passive protection” through extreme hot and dry or very cold surroundings. Emergency responders haven’t been well-informed. If there were a biohazard release, they wouldn’t be helping folks to evacuate to safety, as happened for the Apex hazardous waste fire. Instead, they would be enforcing a quarantine on their neighbors in the community to prevent further spread of disease.”
The proposed NC location is just north of the DurhamCounty line and not far from private homes and farms, as well as the natural drainage to Raleigh’s water supply, FallsLake. GNAT and other organizations have raised a wide range of concerns, including security issues, handling of wastewater from the facility and incineration of research materials that might include biological, chemical or radiological hazards. GNAT believes that the residents of GranvilleCounty have been the victims of many efforts to site undesirable facilities in their community.
Buzzing GNAT could be Granville lab's undoing
Homeland Security project meets formidable, organized opposition
Tim Simmons, Staff Writer - The News and Observer
Unpleasant surprises aren't part of the marketing playbook on how to land a big project.
So it's fair to say something went especially wrong in the fall for supporters of a $450 million bio-defense lab proposed for Granville County.
The depth of the supporters' problem wasn't obvious at the time, even to lab opponents. But those who study economic development say significant opposition to the 520,000-square-foot lab was inevitable, given Granville's history and the state's handling of the project.
"With a name like 'bio-defense,' you had to know there would be opposition," said Jim Johnson, a Kenan-Flagler Business School professor in Chapel Hill. "There's a whole body of literature on how to market this kind of thing. Somebody dropped the ball if they were surprised."
Bill McKellar doesn't know anything about academic studies that explain why someone would sell T-shirts and collect signatures to turn back a lab promising hundreds of new jobs.
But he knows firsthand how Granville County residents blocked a hazardous waste incinerator from being built in the county in the early 1990s.
The experience provided him and other opponents with a handy template when they decided in the fall that they wanted nothing to do with the bio-defense lab proposed by the Department of Homeland Security.
"To be honest, we got started a bit late," said McKellar, who owns the Quality Drug pharmacy on Central Avenue in Butner. "But we had our Rolodex from the last fight, and we even had money left over that we never spent."
In this case, "we" is the Granville Nonviolent Action Team, known locally as GNAT.
Though opposition groups with clever acronyms are common, GNAT set itself apart with a decision by members in 1990 to get themselves arrested if that's what it took to stop the incinerator.
Several dozen adults needed to make good on that promise. A few even went to jail before the company, Thermalchem, decided it no longer wanted to set up shop in Granville County.
About a dozen of those members -- now in their late 50s and early 60s -- formed the core of the group opposing the bio-defense lab. They see no need at this point to get arrested over a proposal, but it has been mentioned as a possibility should Granville be selected.
Georgia, Texas, Kansas and Mississippi are also being considered for the lab. Each site has its strengths. North Carolina's site is 249 acres of secluded, state-owned property just north of Butner. If the federal government really wants to build there, the local government can do little to stop the project.
But that hasn't kept opponents from showing up by the dozens at hearings. They have peppered elected officials with questions and demanded that local governments withdraw support for the project. Several have agreed.
In between, the opponents hold fundraisers, ride across the county on horseback to collect signatures, show up at hearings pushing symbolic coffins and do whatever else they think will keep their cause alive.
"We learned a lot from the incinerator fight in the '90s," said Elaine McNeill, 65, who lives on a tobacco farm in central Granville.
GNAT's history isn't a mystery to state officials. They knew about the incinerator fight, expected opposition to the lab and even contacted a former spokesman of the group at one point. But GNAT members aren't likely to be found at meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, civic clubs or local governments, where supporters most often made their pitches for the bio-defense project.
"A lot of people never heard those presentations," McKellar said.
Moreover, the state had given no single group responsibility for convincing residents that a research lab with the potential to handle deadly pathogens would be something the community needed. Opponents say they think the lab's risks outweigh any possible benefit.
Officially, the application for the lab was made by the N.C. Consortium for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The group is made up of officials from universities, biotech companies, agriculture industry groups and government agencies.
Supporters say the lab could make the Triangle an international research hub when the work of its scientists are combined with the work already done at local universities and companies.
Warwick Arden, dean of the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine, makes that pitch often. He was the group's de facto spokesman for months and still fills the role at times.
The consortium has also used the Raleigh communications firm Capstrat to handle some events. And the UNC system became involved once the North Carolina site made the list of five finalists.
The result: No one group controlled the project.
"I feel passionate that this project is a good thing for this state, and I will talk with anyone to convince them of that, but we have our day jobs, too," Arden said.
Given how quickly opposition formed against the project, Arden said he isn't sure what else could have been done.
But once the surprise of being confronted by opponents wore off, it was clear that supporters couldn't match the grass-roots efforts of GNAT. It's now nearly impossible to go about daily life in southern Granville without encountering "no bio-lab" yard signs or pleas for help tacked to business doors.
Arden doesn't begrudge opponents their right to protest. Supporters, after all, had the stage to themselves for months.
But charges leveled against the lab stretch the truth at times. Other claims are just wrong.
"And if that is the basis upon which people decide they don't want this research facility, that would be a shame," Arden said.
The Department of Homeland Security is scheduled to decide where to build the laboratory before the end of this year.
Though the proposal hasn't triggered the same amount of opposition in every state, supporters and opponents both talk about the possibility of a lawsuit once a selection is made.
The attorneys will take it from there: Opponents on one side of the argument and supporters on the other.