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The Toxic Avenger



Not for the first time, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is all wet.

On January 16, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed plans to build its National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas, a project championed by Brownback, the lame-duck senator.

The new $450 million hot zone, which is to start construction in 2010, will replace the federal bio-threat research facility in Plum Island, off the coast of Long Island, New York. It's sheer lunacy, of course, to close a cure-seeking lab in a place called Plum Island. Doesn't Plum Island sound like a magical, faraway spot where fairies can heal any creature who has contracted anthrax and disarm, like, missiles armed with swarming red tide?

Critics have voiced concern that such a facility could be a terrorist target or a source of accidental contamination, but that didn't stop Brownback or Kansas State University — or boosters from five other communities (including Plum Island, looking to re-up) — from seeking the contract. And San Antonio, Texas, for one, plans to challenge Homeland Security's choice in court.

No wonder: According to Brownback's office, the lab outside K-State's hometown of Manhattan "would have a $3.5 billion impact on the Kansas economy" over 20 years.

Crafty Brownback made a different kind of noise last week about another potential terrorist attraction in his home state.

Brownback and his fellow Kansas senator, Pat Roberts, do not under any circumstances want prisoners now housed at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sent to Fort Leavenworth if President Barack Obama closes Gitmo.

As editor C.J. Janovy wrote (in the January 16 Plog "Why can't we have Guantanamo's prisoners?"), Guantanamo's 250 supposed Islamic radicals and terror suspects could be shipped to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. But last Monday, Brownback released a press statement inviting the new president to tour the USDB.

"I would be honored to show him first hand why Fort Leavenworth is not an acceptable facility to house enemy combatants and he will find that once you see the base up close, it's hard to show why terror suspects should be housed in Kansas," Brownback wrote. That, Janovy countered, sounds a lot like Brownback might be trying to dodge some of the duties and responsibilities that sometimes come with fighting a war.

"Transferring Guantanamo detainees to Fort Leavenworth would be unwise and unsafe," Brownback continued. "If the holding facility at Guantanamo Bay is closed, a new facility should be built, designed specifically to handle detainees."

But building a whole new prison? As Janovy noted, that doesn't exactly sound like a fiscally conservative idea, especially during a time of economic distress when we have a perfectly good prison right here at home. What's the point of being the only maximum-security correctional facility in the Department of Defense if you can't take the world's worst criminals?

After all, the USDB, according to its Web site, is a "state-of-the-art facility ... [where] the staff balances their critical duty to incarcerate, ensure good order and discipline, and to maintain a safe environment, with providing an opportunity for rehabilitation, hope, and a new start."

But Brownback argued that it's "for good reason" that "federal law prohibits the co-mingling of military prisoners with a detainee population and detainees to Fort Leavenworth would disrupt the Fort's primary mission as the intellectual center of the Army at the Command General Staff College." Also, his press release noted, Fort Leavenworth is close to "a community airport, farms and the surrounding community; and the lack of medical facilities on site ... which would require transporting combatants through town to be treated in community hospitals."

Brownback's comments struck Janovy as an insult to the people who run the fort, though Janovy was unable to confirm whether Fort administrators agreed with Brownback's assessment or had, in fact, asked for the senator's help in keeping Gitmo's prisoners out of the Sunflower State.

The public affairs office issued the following statement:

"The U.S. Army will continue to work with the Congress, the Joint Staff, the Department of Defense and the American public on how best to handle this issue in the future. It's presently a matter for the Defense Department."

Note to the Defense Department about those prisoners: Bring 'em on.

Plastic Man

Meanwhile, Matthew Farley, a University of Kansas senior from Wichita, has made a splash in Lawrence without spilling a drop of water. The budding sculptor used recyclables — empty plastic water bottles, the bane of landfills nationwide — to condemn a threat to the environment.

As Pitch staffer Carolyn Szczepanski wrote in her January 14 Plog "This water fountain says: Put down that Dasani!": In 2007 alone, KU students bought more than 430,000 bottles of water on campus. Farley says that doesn't make much sense. Even at just $1 per 20-ounce bottle, students are coughing up $6.40 a gallon for a commodity that flows free from the tap. And as many as 80 percent of the bottles end up in landfills.

Last month, Farley turned a small fraction of those plastic containers into a sculpture called "Frozen Assets." Typically during the winter months, the Chi Omega Fountain, at the center of a high-traffic area on the KU campus, is empty. In just two weeks, Farley used 1,040 empty water bottles to turn the fountain into a talking piece by creating cascading arcs of recyclables.

"I don't think of these bottles as recycled," he says. "I really think of them as reused. Because I had been working with post-consumer plastics, naturally, when I was thinking about water and fountains, I thought about bottled water."

The sculpture will remain on display until the end of the month. Farley hopes to recycle his inspiration in Kansas City this year.

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