Feds will select Kansas site for new lab; Plum Island expected to close

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Worries appear to becoming to an end that the federal government might upgrade the Animal Disease Center at Plum Island, just off Orient Point and the North Fork, to make it a center for studying biological threats. In fact, the lab’s days are numbered.

The Department of Homeland Security’s final environmental impact statement for a proposed “National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility” recommends a location at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, the department announced last week. The recommendation is expected to be the basis for the Kansas location to be formally selected by the department next month.

In a statement issued Friday, the department announced that its pending selection will mean that the Plum Island Animal Disease Center will close its doors. Plum Island had been among five other locations considered for what the government has labeled National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). But there were strenuous objections on Long Island to having the facility sited on the 840-acre island a mile-and-a-half off Orient Point.

The NBAF is to operate at Bio-Safety Level 4, the most dangerous federal category for biological research. Research is to be conducted into life-threatening diseases of both animals and humans “for which there is no known vaccine or therapy,” according to DHS documents.

In a prepared statement, DHS officials stated that the Plum Island facility will soon be shuttered. It said “the NBAF will be designed to replace the current facilities at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center … which is currently the only facility in the U.S. that studies the live virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease. The current facility is too small to meet new research needs, has an outdated physical structure and is not appropriate for zoonotic disease research that must be conducted at Biosafety Level 4.”

“There is currently no laboratory facility in the U.S. with capabilities for BSL-4 research on livestock,” it continued. “PIADC will be closed once the NBAF is operational, and DHS will evaluate options in the coming months for transitioning the PIADC facility and land for future sale.”

U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, in whose district Plum Island is situated, objected to the closing of the 55-year-old existing Plum Island center, which operates at Bio-Safety Level 3. He has opposed the siting of the NBAF on Plum Island but advocated keeping the current center open at Bio-Safety Level 3.

His office issued its own statement Friday, declaring that “with the federal government facing huge budget deficits,” Mr. Bishop “questioned the wisdom of spending nearly half a billion dollars to create a massive new research facility that would duplicate many of the functions currently served by Plum Island … The proposed NBAF has been a priority of the outgoing Bush administration but it remains to be seen whether it will be so for the Obama administration.”

The statement quoted Mr. Bishop as saying: “I will be urging the Obama administration to allow Plum Island to continue to serve our nation in its current capacity as a Bio-Safety Level 3 facility, and I will further urge the new administration to utilize existing facilities to meet other research needs.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement quoted Jay Cohen, deputy under secretary for science and technology of the agency, as saying, “This facility, once built, will help us to protect our livestock industry, food supply, and public health from the accidental or intentional introduction of a foreign animal or zoonotic disease in the U.S.”

In its statement, the DHS said the “assessment process was extensive, engaging experts within and without the government as well as each potential site community, and this final report carefully weighs the input from all interested parties.”

“A formal Record of Decision, which will officially designate a site on which to build the NBAF, will be published on January 12, 2009. Facility design will begin in 2009 with plans for construction to begin in 2010. It is expected that the NBAF would be operational by 2015.”

According to the statement, the Kansas site is described by the DHS as a 48.4 acre parcel on the north end of the Kansas State University, “entirely surrounded by KSU property. The proposed site would be deeded to DHS.” It is “a governmentally zoned area—zoning designated ‘U’ for university—characterized by research and development land and facilities. Currently, the proposed Manhattan Campus Site consists of two dog and horse research buildings, a research structure used as student housing, the Biosecurity Research Institute (BSI), a flea/dog research laboratory …The BRI is a BSL-3 facility.”

In 2005, DHS, which took over the Plum Island Animal Disease Center from the Department of Agriculture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, announced that the center would be replaced by the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. It would operate at Bio-Safety Level 4, DHS said then, and take on a broader mission than Plum Island has had: “high-consequence biological threats involving human, zoonotic—i.e., transmitted from animals to humans, and foreign animal diseases.”

A list of 18 possible sites in 11 states was put together by DHS—with Plum Island not on the original list. “There was an agreement between elected officials in New York State and DHS to not exceed a bio-safety level of 3,” explained a DHS spokesman, Jarrod Agen, in 2006. “That decision would take Plum Island out of contention.”

Last year, the list of sites was reduced to five. Public meetings were arranged including one in Southold, even though Plum Island was not on the list.. And, in a surprise, James Johnson, director of national laboratories for DHS, said at that session that Plum Island was being considered after all—in effect, a sixth finalist for the proposed $451 million facility.

At the meeting, concerns were raised by those in attendance about the dangers of a Bio-Safety Level 4 facility so close to a major human population center. The threat of terrorism was also brought up. A 2003 Government Accountability Office report criticized security on Plum Island, warning that “an adversary might try to steal pathogens” from it and use them against people and/or animals in the U.S. The 2004 book, “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory” by Michael Carroll, told of a raid in 2002 by CIA agents and Army commandos on the residence and offices in Afghanistan of an associate of Osama bin Laden in which “a dossier” on Plum Island was found.

In August of this year, as part of its environmental impact process, DHS held another public meeting in Southold. A long line of people—including public officials—raised similar concerns.

Jane Finalborgo of Southampton, an aide to Representative Bishop, read a statement declaring Mr. Bishop’s “strong opposition, and the opposition of nearly every elected official on Long Island, to placing a Bio-Safety Level 4 facility on Plum Island … Simply put … Plum Island’s proximity to major metropolitan areas on Long Island and Connecticut make it an unsuitable location for BSL-4 research which investigates highly infectious diseases that affect both animals and humans … Asking us to have a BSL-4 facility is asking too much.”

David Nyce, mayor of Greenport, spoke of the impossibility of evacuation on Long Island “should something happen” at a Bio-Safety Level 4 facility on Plum Island and the pathogens spreading to Long Island.

Melanie Norden of Greenport criticized the record of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and declared that “given the island’s history, we question whether it will be able to meet the level and security and safety requirements of a Bio-Safety Level 4 facility.” She hit at security issues including the “limited surveillance of the island’s periphery” and lack of a no-fly zone.

Similar public meetings were held near the other five sites: Texas Research Park in San Antonio; Umstead Research Farm in Granville County, North Carolina; University of Georgia in Athens; and Flora Industrial Park in Madison County, Mississippi; and the Manhattan, Kansas location.

The DHS in its statement Friday said the agency’s process “included extensive community involvement, beginning in July 2007, when DHS announced its intent to evaluate site alternatives for the proposed NBAF … The final EIS responds to the hundreds of comments that were made.”

There have been mixed views in Kansas about having the facility there. Opposition has been led by a group called No NBAF in Kansas, which has raised health, safety and environmental concerns and campaigned under the theme to “keep the NBAF out of the heartland.” The concentration of huge numbers of livestock nearby which could be devastated by an accident has been a major worry.

On its website, No NBAG in Kansas declares: “We are a group of concerned citizens who believe this facility would be too dangerous to have anywhere on the U.S. mainland, but especially in Manhattan. We are working or retired farmers, builders, students, teachers, business owners, scientists, physicians, parents, grandparents, and more. We share a deep concern for keeping Manhattan a healthy place to live and raise our children … We believe that the local media and the proponents of this plan have not given the public enough information to make an informed judgment. When the residents of this state understand the risks and uncertainties of this facility they will also say NO.”

Among those supporting it has been Dan Richardson, CEO of the K-State Olathe Innovation Campus, who in an August statement said that “for generations, Kansas farmers have cultivated the state’s natural resources to feed the nation … Today, it extends beyond the field and into the scientific realm” with “farmers and ranchers working with the state’s scientists … to protect their livelihood from the latest threat. That relationship has created a region burgeoning with bioscience activity. From agricultural research taking place at Kansas State University to the more than 125 animal health companies along the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor—the expertise is here.”

The new K-State Olathe Innovation Campus has taken “protecting the food supply to the next level,” he said. The NBAF “will not only complement the work already taking place in the region, it will strengthen the already booming bioscience industry in Kansas.”

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