Closing Homeland Security laboratories to build a wall puts lives in danger

Closing Homeland Security laboratories to build a wall puts lives in danger
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Recent acts of terrorism at home and abroad remind us that our first responders are on the front lines, and that our national policies and programs should continue to support them. Unfortunately, the administration’s proposed budget threatens to undermine programs that our responders rely on. The clock is ticking for Congress to act.

The president and the Department of Homeland Security’s fiscal 2018 budget call for the closure of the National Urban Security Technology laboratory along with the Chemical Security Analysis Center and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. This will save a mere $41.7 million out of an agency budget of $44.1 billion, or less than one tenth of one percent of the agency’s budget.

Yet the impact is far greater. 

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The National Urban Security Technology Laboratory in New York City supports first responders in many ways. Including servicing first responder radiation detection equipment, used to identify and prevent the use of nuclear devices, as well as radiological dispersal devices, known as “dirty-bombs”. Their expertise is also utilized by first responders for technical issues in radiation planning and response.

 

The Chemical Security Analysis Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground has also been critical in understanding the impact of chemical agents, including those often used in industrial process and are transported by truck and rail in communities every day. 

The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasure (NBACC), at Fort Detrick provides important research and forensic analysis functions in the event of a biological attack. It also contains one of the few BSL-4 high-security research laboratories, which is certified to handle some of the most deadly pathogens in the world. The NBACC, however, might be safe from execution for now, as the House of Representatives inserted language into their version of the National Defense Authorization Act requiring further study before the lab can be closed.

But this stopgap should not be considered sufficient to stave off closure, nor should these examples be considered all that is on the chopping block. 

This is part of a greater budgetary assault on science that will directly impact our ability to detect and respond to acts of terrorism if allowed to pass. It will erode the innovation and tools that our first responders rely upon. And this will be done to make a $2 billion down payment on a border wall that is of dubious value to homeland security. The true cost of which could be as much as $21.6 billion, funded at the expense of these and other mission-critical programs.

The Department of Homeland Security is a relatively new department, with many lessons learned over the past decade and a half. There are certainly opportunities to review and revise programs so that they are more efficient to the taxpayer, and more effective to their mission. Border security is also a critical aspect of our homeland security deserving of appropriate resources, with bi-partisan solutions possible

But this budget is not the product of a methodical review to better the agency. Rather it is hastily crafted and has not considered the true costs of the cuts that it would impose.

The threats that our nation faces have grown more complex, as have the resources and expertise of our adversaries. If we continue to invest in innovation and support a strong scientific foundation to our homeland security mission, we can stay ahead of the threats we face. But if we give in to oversimplified solutions at the expense of innovation, we lose the most important edge we have in combating the tools of terrorism.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has over a decade of experience in planning for weapons of mass destruction response for local, state and federal agencies. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschlegel.