Editor’s note – In the second part of this two part series, the reader gains valuable insights into the facilitation of an actual public dispute involving the construction of potentially hazardous research facilities. 

Community Meeting – the Event

Back to the citizen meeting in Athens: Despite my request, the organizing committee had set up the room in classroom style, without round tables.  At the front of the room was a long table with one microphone.  This was reserved for attending public officials, and separated them from other participantsIn the time before the meeting I tried to rearrange the tables and chairs throughout the room so as to encourage conversations. Somehow the organizing committee never understood how important conversation would be in this circumstance.  Their mindset was that the public officials would engage with the audience in a classic question and answer session.

Approximately 250 citizens came to the meeting – nearly three times the number expected. This was substantially more than the facility could accommodate. It was noisy and the room set-up promoted little dialogue, but much preaching, teaching, lecturing, and venting. 

Notwithstanding, much was accomplished. Citizens learned why Athens was in the running for the laboratory. They were told that the primary strength of Georgia’s NBAF proposal was the impressive mix of expertise, technologies and facilities for disease surveillance, diagnosis, prevention and treatment that is to be found in Athens and its environs.  They included:

  • UGA’s internationally recognized expertise and programs in infectious diseases and avian medicine. When fully operational, its Animal Health Research Center would be the nation’s only stand-alone BSL-4 AG facility on a university campus.
  • USDA Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory and Richard B. Russell Agricultural Research Center, with an internationally recognized capability in infectious diseases of poultry, molecular diagnostics, vaccine development, and programs in food quality and safety.
  • The presence of private-sector companies with world-class proficiency and facilities for the development of animal vaccines.

Other critical resources located within a 70-mile radius such as:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Emory University, with world-class programs in infectious diseases, epidemiology, global health, public health and bioterrorism preparedness and response, and human medicine.
  • Georgia Institute of Technology, with the fastest growing bio-engineering program in the country; and
  • Georgia State University, with its commitment to virology, zoonotics, infectious diseases and immunology;

It was also predicted that the economic impact of the NBAF laboratory would be substantial. When opened it would employ an estimated 250-350 federal employees. Its construction would bring between 1,000 and 1,500 local jobs to Athens over a three year period.  Once operational, the facility would provide 250 or more permanent jobs for scientists, technicians and support personnel, and up to 400 additional community jobs. These numbers would bring into the region, over twenty years, $500 million in wages/salaries and $1.5 billion in total overall economic impact.  Finally, it was asserted that the NBAF would be a powerful stimulus to Georgia’s efforts to grow the state’s health and bioscience industry, and would enhance Georgia’s credentials as a world public health leader.

Against this backdrop, community discussion was wide-ranging and at times heated.  Several points of interest emerged from these discussions.  Among them was the surprising lack of knowledge among the city council persons in attendance; the presence of a very vocal and patronizing coterie from the science and research faculties of the university; and an equally vocal (and angry) number of citizens who felt they were being manipulated by “the powers that be,,”and did not like being kept in the dark. It also seems likely that given the number of unanswered questions (157 to be exact), the political establishment would soon be in “a world of trouble” with the electorate. A final point is that it was learned at this meeting that there was to be a formal meeting (which this writer attended) within one week.

Citizens were primarily concerned about the ecological aspects of this NBAF proposal.  They were appalled that the facility would study “the world’s most dangerous microbes, several capable of rapid widespread human depopulation”; nor could they understand why such a facility would be built next to a major water source (the Middle Oconee River) located in the smallest county in one of the fastest growing areas in the Southeast.  With several nearby residential neighborhoods abutting the proposed site they questioned whether theimpact study done by the county took into consideration the magnitudesof extensive earth moving and construction which could last for many years, or the risk of probable air, noise and lighting pollution and traffic disruption. They wanted to know the levels and types of contaminants, chemicals, or other substances in the laboratory’s waste water, how they would be treated and whether the river could sustain such effluents.

In a summary, there were many arguments against, yet a few in favor of locating the NBAF in Athens.  Arguments in favor of locating NBAF in Athens, (although rebutted by many attendees) included:

  • An increase in job opportunities for Athens’ lower income population, either at NBAF or at biotech companies attracted to Athens because of the facility;
  • The creation of a national reputation for agricultural research
  • An improvement of Georgia’s quality of life with respect to vaccines, therapies, and a safe food supply
  • An opportunity to increase citizen involvement with the Athens-Clarke government
  • Increased research opportunities for UGA, Emory, etc. and collaborations with international research programs

Arguments against locating NBAF in Athens were “all over the lot.”  In addition to the issues already raised the following questions and specific requests from the attendees are illustrative:

  • Is there really a need for this?  Is there a shortage of lab space in our country
  • Will this lab as a federal facility come under local jurisdiction for water usage reduction? Can they still safely operate with water reduction?
  • How would a problem with the facility affect the poultry and livestock industry in the state
  • Why is this seemingly being rushed before it is thoroughly researched and presented to the public?
  • Will there be a thorough assessment of the pros and cons of the impact on the overall picture in Athens- Clarke County
  • Who will be ultimately responsible for problems with the facility?
  • Where will the money come to train and equip first responders in the event of an accident at the facility?
  • Where are the local and regional scientists who would serve on a panel to answer our questions and discuss our fears?
  • What emergency measures need to be put into place for local schools and pre-schools?
  • How does DHS address the possibility that the NBAF would grow outside of its initial design? What about imminent domain issues?

Finally, because of a pending public meeting hosted by the University with Homeland Security and NBAF officials participants were asked to write out their questions and concerns. The net result was the above-mentioned 157 questions and/or concerns which were to be presented university and DHS.

Conclusion

Despite this writer’s already articulated reservations this meeting was constructive.  People were encouraged to express their opinions.  The dialogue continued for several weeks.  Options were discussed and information was exchanged. In the end the political establishment and the university research community were forced to back away from this project.

While no one knows for sure, it’s possible that if the inclusive, informative facilitation process had taken place earlier, opponents would have felt less manipulated and resentful, and could have been persuaded to welcome the project to Athens, to everyone’s benefit. Instead, the nod ultimately went to Kansas.

Why Kansas, which sits on a fault line and is in the middle of “tornado alley”?  

By Milton E. Lopes, Ph.D.

Milton E. Lopes, Ph.D. is an experienced management consultant, educator, facilitator and mediator whose work is underpinned by both theoretical knowledge and real-world business experience. During his forty-five year career he has worked in community and economic development, industry, financial services, government and more recently as a Professor of Public Policy and Organization Theory. He is registered as a Neutral in the State of Georgia and certified in General and Civil Mediation and Domestic and Family Relations. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration and a MBA.