Since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security named Manhattan, Kansas, the site for the construction of the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in December 2008, those who live in this mid-sized university community have had many questions about the facility’s impact.
When it opens right next door to Kansas State University, NBAF, which will be operated by U.S. Department of Agriculture, will be the premier science facility of its kind, and the only biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory in the U.S. able to study high-consequence zoonotic pathogens — those that can transfer from animals to humans — in livestock.
Over the past decade, the City of Manhattan and K-State have worked hard to capitalize on this federal investment. Biosecurity and animal health have become a focus of the community’s economic development initiatives. The university established the Edge Collaboration District adjacent to NBAF to provide office and lab space for private industry and other organizations working in the animal health and agriculture sectors. The city also invested heavily in infrastructure projects to improve traffic flow and aesthetics near the facility.
NBAF has had extraordinary support in Manhattan and across Kansas. University and federal officials conducted a robust and long-term public education campaign to help residents understand why NBAF’s location in the Flint Hills is crucial, and how it will be safe in one of the most vital food production centers in the world.
For residents who aren’t familiar with the facility’s design and the multiple layers of safety protocols, questions may remain about the safety of NBAF.
The building is a steel and concrete fortress — that’s why it has taken so long to build. It’s designed so the most high-consequence pathogens are stored and handled within a secure containment envelope. In case of an emergency, the containment core literally locks down like a vault to ensure pathogens remain inside.
A team of world-class experts have been charged with creating safety protocols as well as maintaining and operating equipment, systems and processes. Among this team is David Keffer, NBAF’s chief of safety, health and environmental management, and Steve Mirack, the select agent manager, who is responsible for ensuring that the facility complies with federal regulations for particular microorganisms called select agents.
The magnitude of their responsibility is not lost on either man. The challenge inspired both to relocate from other areas of the country to support NBAF’s mission.
“Working at NBAF is a privilege — it’s an extremely special place,” Mirack said. “The importance of what we do really hits home when working with scientists who are providing solutions and countermeasures to combat agents that could potentially impact our food sources, both across the United States and the world.”
Keffer, who’s spent much of his career mitigating hazardous chemicals for the federal government, explained that the facility is using a multidisciplinary team approach to ensure the safety of employees and the greater community.
“Our team, the biorisk team, and the rest of NBAF’s employees are all working as one to make this the safest biocontainment facility in the U.S.,” Keffer said. “I have the utmost confidence that everyone at our facility will do their absolute best to ensure this facility is safe.”
Recently, Keffer and Mirack sat down with the Greater Manhattan Economic Partnership to explain their roles at NBAF, the secure research environment they are helping to build, the intense protocols and training practices, and the rigorous hiring process employees go through.
Keffer: I’m in charge of four key areas at NBAF:
Mirack: My position is focused on the NBAF Select Agent Program, which is responsible for safe science and transfer of especially hazardous microorganisms, called select agents. I’m part of the biorisk management team dedicated to ensuring employees are safe when working with biological materials and that the biological agents stay in their intended location. I collaborate with many organizations and people, including local and federal compliance experts and training staff on proper procedures.
None of us are in this alone. It is a huge collaborative effort with multiple disciplines, which is why it is so important to have a great team on board. The challenge is the best part of the job. Our goal is to make NBAF the best facility the researchers have ever used. To do this, we must establish clear, efficient protocols to make sure safety procedures are always followed.
Two of Manhattan’s newest residents relocated here for careers at NBAF and, despite the pandemic limiting their ability to truly experience all Manhattan has to offer, so far they’ve enjoyed their time in The Little Apple.
David Keffer, NBAF’s chief of safety, health and environmental management, is originally from southeast Arkansas, growing up on a farm near the community of Bayou Meto. He spent five and a half years on Navy nuclear submarines before finishing his bachelor’s degree in environmental health science. He also has a certification from the Defense Acquisitions University at Level III in Systems Engineering.
Then, he spent the past 20 years as a federal employee starting up new facilities all over the world. He arrived in Manhattan in June 2019 after completing a stint at the Bluegrass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant for the Department of the Army, where he oversaw the destruction of nerve and mustard agents. He sees many similarities between that work and his new challenge at NBAF.
“From a safety and environmental perspective, that work required the same level of knowledge and expertise that I can contribute to NBAF,” Keffer said.
Since coming to Manhattan, he’s especially enjoyed the natural beauty of the region, spending much of his free time outdoors at Tuttle Creek and Milford reservoirs.
Steve Mirack, select agent manager, hails from the eastern shores of Maryland near Annapolis. Previously, he worked as a federal inspector evaluating facilities for federal compliance, and prior to that, he worked for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health in laboratory and containment environments.
While life in Kansas has been a big transition, and the pandemic has limited his ability to fully explore the region, he says the people he has met have been extremely friendly and his neighbors look out for each other. He enjoys how pet-friendly the area is, with lots of parks and walking trails to enjoy.
“I really enjoy the opportunity to be more physically active and spend more time outside,” Mirack said. “My long commute in Maryland really ate into my free time. But I wanted a change of pace and different scenery, to slow down and not sit in traffic 45 minutes to two hours a day. Quality of life is something that many people overlook.”
Mirack recently purchased a home close to NBAF and sees his willingness to live so close to the facility as a testament to his belief in the facility’s safety.
“I bought a house within a half mile of NBAF,” Mirack said. “I walk my dog in the mornings, and I can see the exhaust stacks. I have a vested interest in seeing that everything is operating appropriately and that the public is kept safe.”
Keffer: NBAF has redundant capabilities including being able to generate our own power if needed. Most of our environmental protections are geared toward waste management, wastewater and air quality. Everything is subject to multiple redundancies. For example, all research waste is sterilized in autoclaves and then incinerated to ensure pathogens are killed.
In regard to air quality, a complex HEPA filtration system and decontamination process clean the air, and dedicated duct systems keep directional airflow in laboratories from circulating into other parts of the building. Those systems are regularly checked to ensure they are working correctly. Backup generators ensure those processes continue even during a power outage.
Our wastewater is processed on-site, then the City of Manhattan and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment provide oversight to make sure we adhere to compliance standards. We want to exceed those standards so any waste that leaves NBAF does not present any risk to the environment or the community.
Mirack: We’re dedicating extensive effort, time and attention to safety now, several years before any science will happen at NBAF and before the building is even completed. Every scientist hired to work here will go through extensive background checks and rigorous training, and then be reviewed by a panel of experts, before they’re allowed to work with pathogens or enter containment. We make sure only the appropriate people can be near or have access to those agents.
Once scientists are allowed to start work, they must wear personal protective equipment, or PPE, before entering containment, take extensive precautions while they’re working in containment (those vary depending on what select agent is being used), clean and disinfect workspaces frequently and follow procedures to safely exit containment. Our team ensures all this work is done correctly.
All liquids leaving a lab get “cooked” in highly specialized equipment to destroy pathogens. All air goes through HEPA filtration (usually twice). No equipment or materials leave the lab unnecessarily, and never without being thoroughly treated to destroy pathogens.
Mirack: Based on my past experience as a federal laboratory inspector, I’m extremely impressed with the level of safety and protections that are implemented at NBAF. There are extensive controls and means in place to contain and prevent release of select agents. This includes mechanical redundancies to confirm containment is maintained should we experience any type of equipment failure, and we have provisions for all weather conditions. The site and facility will be evaluated and tested regularly.
The facility’s design is layered, so at its heart is the containment envelope, which is where the most high-consequence organisms are kept. Picture a box within a box within a box. In case of an emergency such as a tornado, the system locks down to a level that will isolate the space in the containment envelope. It will close like a vault to prevent the release of agents, ensure appropriate pressurizations, and go above and beyond the regulatory assessments.
Structurally, that building is the soundest building I’ve ever seen. Those features are tested on an annual basis to make sure their functionality is active. We are always proactively planning for situations before they arise, and we are developing response plans for all situations. That in and of itself has huge benefits.
It will take more than a year after construction is completed to make sure the facility is operating as designed. Before research ever begins, NBAF will be inspected and reviewed by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Federal Select Agent Program to ensure all regulatory requirements are met to work with the select agents.
Mirack: Everyone goes through an extensive background check. This includes a suitability program that assesses the personality and character of an applicant to identify any susceptibility to outside influence or to becoming an insider threat. They go through an FBI security risk assessment, among other evaluation tools.
Several current NBAF employees were hired locally. We need experienced tradespeople who live here already, have a vested interest in our work and know that what they are doing could affect their community.
Available positions are posted on usajobs.gov and applications must be submitted through that website. To learn more about federal government series and grades — and to view current pay scales, visit www.usajobs.gov/Help/faq/pay/series-and-grade/.