June 2, 2003
Sacramento lobbies to be Quantico of the West
Leaders say area ideal for homeland security center
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – With a converted Air Force base, a mothballed nuclear power plant and a research university down the road, officials in the Sacramento area think they have all the ingredients for a major Western homeland security center.
They have been lobbying federal officials for an infusion of money to move their plans – which include a training facility for police and other emergency workers – off the drawing board.
"Essentially, there is no Quantico of the West, so to speak, for first responders," said Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas, referring to the sprawling Marine Corps training center in Virginia, which also is home to the FBI Academy. "There needs to be some kind of West Coast center."
The officials say the training facility would be complemented by a proposed federal research lab at the University of California Davis, which would be capable of handling some of the deadliest viruses terrorists might seek to use as well as emerging diseases such as SARS. That proposal has drawn strong opposition from some Davis residents, who fear the facility would be a threat to public health or would make the community a target for terrorists.
University administrators insist the lab would be safe, and some economic development officials in the region see it as a potential magnet for biotech industry jobs.
"For Sacramento, we see this as all being connected," said County Supervisor Roger Dickinson.
Dickinson, Blanas and other representatives from the region recently fanned out across Washington to lobby for the projects.
Lawmakers from Northern California, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Rep. Doug Ose, R-Sacramento, have asked for $5 million to be included in the House version of the federal budget for 2004 as a down payment on the $60 million training facility.
The proposed Homeland Security and Strategic Training and Response Academy would accommodate as many as 2,300 police officers, firefighters, National Guard members and other emergency workers, according to planners. They would be trained in skills ranging from urban search-and-rescue to thwarting a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant.
The academy would use facilities at the former McClellan Air Force Base – which already is home to a smaller public safety training college – and the shuttered Rancho Seco nuclear plant, which was decommissioned in 1989.
While not ruling out the proposal, one homeland security official expressed concern that the facility might duplicate existing federal programs. The Homeland Security Department's Office of Domestic Preparedness, for instance, offers five training courses for state and local emergency personnel at sites in Alabama, New Mexico, Louisiana, Texas and Nevada.
Meanwhile, federal officials are weighing applications from UC Davis and several other universities that want to host one of the new "biocontainment" laboratories proposed by the National Institutes of Health. The facility will include a secure, sealed lab where researchers could work with anthrax, Ebola and other deadly pathogens that officials fear could be used as weapons by terrorists or rogue states.
Only a handful of labs in the United States are equipped for such research, notably at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the Army's medical research center at Fort Detrick, Md.
Institutes of Health officials say those labs are fully utilized and more capacity is urgently needed to study the pathogens and develop potential vaccines, treatments and other countermeasures.
University of California officials say the Davis campus would be an ideal site for one of the $200 million labs, given its academic focus on biological sciences.
"We have a unique combination of expertise here," said UC Davis Provost Virginia S. Hinshaw, noting that the facility also will include lower-level labs and could be used to study diseases such as SARS and West Nile virus.
"The need is tremendous. We have lots of people and goods going across our borders every day," Hinshaw said.
Opponents in Davis have raised a host of safety concerns about the proposed lab, and the City Council voted to oppose the university's application.
"My personal belief is we don't need any more of these things," said Samantha McCarthy, an organizer of the group Stop UCD Biolab Now. "They're a bigger risk than they are benefit."
Hinshaw said university officials are sensitive to those concerns and have tried to address them.
"If you look at the history of these facilities in North America, these are very safe, secure facilities. They've functioned very well, and we're building on their experience," she said. "We're not starting from scratch."
Sacramento area officials say the projects could produce substantial economic benefits for the region. The proposed lab will create 270 jobs, according to the university. First responders who come to the training facility will need food and housing.
"We're not trying to take advantage, obviously, of homeland security," said Paul Hahn, director of economic development for Sacramento County. "But I certainly see opportunities for jobs to come here, and if there are 2,000 or 3,000 trainees coming in, they're going to stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants."