President Joe Biden has dropped the ball on a project begun under former President Donald Trump to manufacture personal protective equipment inside America, instead of relying on foreign nations, according to a report.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that a plant in Wythe County in rural southwest Virginia began construction in order to manufacture medical gloves — as well as the rubber needed to make the gloves — so that the U.S. would not have to rely on other countries for PPE, as was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only about two percent of the 120 billion to 150 billion medical gloves used in the U.S. every year are made domestically, with almost all imports coming from Asia, according to the report.
The Obama administration famously depleted the Strategic National Stockpile during the swine flu crisis in 2009 and never replenished it, forcing Trump to stand up an effort to source and manufacture PPE at home when COVID-19 hit.
The Virginia plant was part of those efforts, according to the article. The federal government spent $123 million on the project, which was to be executed by Blue Star NBR. But due to lack of action and engagement by the Biden administration, it is being mothballed.
The plant began in late 2020, finishing construction in late spring, according to the Post. It was the only plant in the country capable of producing the synthetic rubber needed to make disposable medical gloves, known as nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR). However, the factory was shut down in the fall.
Blue Star chief executive Scott Maier told the Post, “Just wasted money… . This was all built, ready to go. And because we didn’t start, now we have to take it all apart. … We just want to finish what we started.”
“It would be a shame not to finish,” Victor Galati, Blue Star’s chief financial officer, said. “It’s a vital product that we need, and we’re putting our country at risk, not having something so important.”
Federal officials planned to build two factories with Blue Star, one for the rubber, and another to turn the rubber into the medical gloves. With only the rubber plant built, federal officials now tell Blue Star it will have to find its own $60 million to hook up the factory to utilities and another $170 million to build a glove factory.
At the government’s urging, Blue Star even tripled the size of the rubber plant in order to supply other glove factories, according to the report.
The factories were supposed to bring more than 2,400 jobs to Wythe County.
“How a company could act in good faith and build this plant and not have follow-through from those that initiated it, it truly makes my brain hurt,” David Manley, executive director of the Joint Industrial Development Authority of Wythe County, told the Post.
In May, the Department of Defense — which handled the contracting for the department of Health and Human Services during the pandemic – declared that Blue Star had “successfully completed its contract,” according to the report.
The DOD did not respond to the Post with a comment. The HHS, which reportedly continues work on several glove factories, told the paper:
The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to preparing for future public health threats by continuing to invest in domestic manufacturing and the Strategic National Stockpile … Per the terms of the contract awarded, Blue Star has fulfilled all contractually obligated deliverables. HHS continues to work closely with Blue Star and other companies interested in domestic manufacturing to ensure a more resilient public health supply chain.
In fall, after seeing no production on the horizon, Blue Star brought in mechanical and electrical contractors to remove scores of motors and store them in humidity-controlled storage.
“You can’t leave a car unattended in a garage for a couple years and then expect it to start up right away,” Maier said. “There’s kind of preventative maintenance you need to do if you want it to run.”
The state’s congressional delegation — including both Democrat U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — have lobbied the Biden administration for a solution, but the Biden HHS has “made it clear” it is not planning any production with Blue Star.
The HHS is, however, bankrolling an entirely new NBR plant in Louisiana with another company, SafeSource.
Warner and Kaine wrote a letter early this year to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra that said:
Blue Star believes it has done everything asked of it — raised their hand to help during the COVID-19 pandemic, submitted proposals as directed by federal government officials, sought and received state and local support, and continues to talk to all agencies involved in this important work of expanding the industrial base for public health and national security.
HHS told the lawmakers in May that while it was “grateful” companies like Blue Star were willing to take on new projects during the pandemic, Blue Star’s contract was days from ending and there would be no new money.
“This is devastating news for both Blue Star and the surrounding communities of Wythe County and the greater Southwest Virginia region,” Jason El Koubi, Virginia Economic Development Partnership president, wrote to Warner and Kaine. “Without the federal funding, Blue Star does not have a path forward.”