Kentucky milks Homeland Security money

UK professor Fred Payne behind the Barnhart Bldg. on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday morning, December 16, 2008. Photo by Matt Goins
UK professor Fred Payne behind the Barnhart Bldg. on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday morning, December 16, 2008. Photo by Matt Goins

Fred Payne, a University of Kentucky food engineer, had impeccable timing six years ago when he got an idea for defending American milk from terrorism.

Within months of Payne's brainstorm, a Stanford University professor wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times theorizing that terrorists could kill hundreds of thousands of people by dropping a few grams of botulism toxin into the tank of a milk truck leaving a farm.

The essay sent shock waves through the booming homeland security bureaucracy in Washington, which was looking for ways to spend its billions of dollars.

Also around this time, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky, was establishing the non-profit National Institute for Hometown Security, or NIHS, in his hometown of Somerset. As a senior member of Congress, Rogers helps control homeland security spending; he has earmarked $52 million in federal funds for the NIHS, in part to pay for anti-terrorism research at Kentucky universities.

Fear, meet funding. Payne won $2.67 million in NIHS research grants.

Years later, Payne's work on a high-tech "milk-transport security system" is nearing completion and impresses the dairy industry with its potential. Payne has started a company, TranSecurity Systems Inc., to market it. Limited commercial testing in 2009 won high marks, Payne said.

A Washington Post series this week examined the vast public-private enterprise that has grown up around homeland security in Washington and communities around the country. Rogers' institute and the Kentucky projects it funds are one local example of that sprawling operation.

Payne is one of the success stories at the NIHS. Other NIHS-funded projects have included research on face recognition, disaster prediction, pedestrian surveillance and trying to reduce the explosiveness of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Not everyone approves of Rogers, a 15-term congressman, establishing his own homeland security agency in a small town with no obvious terrorist targets. Fiscal conservatives say Rogers is building an empire for himself in southeastern Kentucky using his so-called budget earmarks, which direct federal spending.

"If this institute is so important, if it's so needed for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, then why do you have to earmark funding for it?" asked U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., on the House floor in 2008. "Why doesn't the department seek its own funding and say this is a vital institute?"

But Rogers argues that small towns in Kentucky are as potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks as major coastal cities, so they, too, have a role to play in defending themselves.

"New York and Washington, D.C., think they've been inadequately funded, but so does Albany, Ky.," Rogers said at the NIHS founding in 2004.

The milk man

Payne, a genial inventor with several patents to his name, had spent years thinking about milk.

In the 1980s, he discovered that milk curds reflect light at different levels while coagulating because of the changes in protein. Based on that discovery, he created a sensor and computer program to help dairy farmers know when their cheese is ready.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Payne was among many food experts who began to ponder the safety of the nation's food supply.

Payne said it occurred to him that storage tanks on milk trucks seldom are protected by anything more than an easy-to-cut lock. Where milk came from, where it's going, all of that information is kept on paper — documents that could be used to plan to taint it.

How could 21st-century technology secure milk during transport and provide traceability back to the farm, he wondered.

Eventually, he and his partners, including dairy expert Chris Thompson of the UK College of Agriculture, designed a hand-held wireless computer to record a truck's contents and send that information to remote locations; a global positioning system to identify a truck's whereabouts at all times; and secure locks on the dome lid and rear doors, with a key pad to enter access codes.

"There has been and remains a keen interest in this project," Payne said, adding that the same technology could secure other liquid foodstuffs, such as corn sweeteners and vegetable oil.

Poisoning fears

Payne won his homeland security grants thanks in part to another professor, Lawrence Wein at Stanford, whom he didn't even know and who wrote The New York Times opinion article.

"A terrorist," Wein wrote in the Times in 2005, "fills a one-gallon jug with a sludge substance containing a few grams of botulin. He then sneaks onto a dairy farm and pours it into the contents of an unlocked milk tank, or he dumps it into the tank of a milk truck while the driver is eating breakfast at a truck stop."

In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Wein, who teaches management science, said he simply was offering a hypothetical situation regarding terrorism. He was not suggesting that milk poisoning was an imminent threat. In fact, he said, the dairy industry has intensified the heat used in pasteurization, which reduces the chances of spores surviving a contamination attempt.

But Wein's remarks led to a tense discussion in Washington about the stuff poured over children's breakfast cereals, Payne said. The homeland security bureaucracy was keenly interested in possible solutions.

"We didn't plan this in response to Wein, but he sure helped us get the grants," Payne said.

Congressman's creation

The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, in Washington pays for the NIHS because Rogers' earmarks tell it to do so. He is the ranking Republican on the relevant House spending committee. The NIHS is based in Somerset, where Rogers lives, and overseen by some of his political allies.

For example, NIHS board chairman J.C. Egnew is one of Rogers' major campaign donors and owner of a tent-making company to which Rogers has steered tens of millions of dollars in federal funds. The NIHS commercialization director, Shannon Rickett, who makes about $80,000 a year, is chairwoman of the Republican Party for Rogers' 5th Congressional District.

The connections are coincidental, said Ewell Balltrip, the non-profit's chief executive, who makes about $121,000 a year.

"Politics doesn't have anything to do with what we do," Balltrip said this week.

The NIHS plugs a hole in national security, Balltrip said, by identifying what kind of new products are necessary to defend the nation's infrastructure. But it needs partners to develop these products, he said.

"We take the identified gaps to Kentucky universities and say, 'These are the areas that need to be addressed,'" Balltrip said. Kentucky researchers submit their suggestions for possible products that could have commercial uses and request research grants to develop them.

The NIHS has shepherded five projects through at least part of the commercialization process. Other than Payne's milk project, its greatest success might be the MITOC, which is short for the Man-Portable Interoperable Tactical Operations Center. The MITOC can be carried around in a small vehicle to provide wireless communications access in disasters that disrupt most other services.

Researchers at the University of Louisville and Murray State University invented MITOC using $1.1 million in NIHS grants. It's now sold by a Texas company to public-safety agencies, Balltrip said.

Given that Rogers is 72 and approaching his fourth decade in Congress, nobody thinks it's a great idea for the NIHS to depend on him for its survival, Balltrip said.

"The ultimate goal," he said, "would be ... for this to become a continuing program and for the president to include it in his annual budget."