The animal disease lab at Plum Island will not be upgraded to handle dangerous, incurable disease strains, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop says he has been assured by Michael Chertoff, secretary for Homeland Security in the Bush cabinet.
“I’ve been assured by the secretary that he does not consider Plum Island to be an appropriate place for the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility,” Mr. Bishop said last week.
Mr. Bishop said he does not have an “ironclad commitment” from Mr. Chertoff. But “if they wanted this to be the facility,” he said, “they’ve been taking an incredibly circuitous route to get there.”
Mr. Bishop made his comments as Mr. Chertoff’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a public informational meeting at Southold Town Hall last Tuesday, April 15 on the possibility of Plum Island becoming the site for the proposed $451 million facility, where research would be conducted at “Bio-Safety Level 4,” the highest level of danger the federal government sets for biological work.
Bio-Safety Level 4 involves research on diseases for which there are no vaccines or cures and that affect both animals and people. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which has been in operation since 1954, does research at Bio-Safety Level 3.
Federal rules require the Department Homeland Security to consider all alternatives when it plans a new lab so the possibility of siting it at Plum Island is being treated as an option only as a formality, a spokesman for Mr. Bishop’s office asserted. Five other sites around the country are also on the table.
There was a standing-room-only crowd at the gathering in Southold, with overwhelming sentiment against the placement of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility on Plum Island, a mile-and-a-half off Orient Point.
Despite Mr. Chertoff’s assurances to Mr. Bishop about the new “Bio and Agro-Defense Facility,” the federal government otherwise has been pushing to have the Plum Island lab operate at Bio-Safety Level 4. The move has been opposed by area members of Congress and other Long Island officials.
The drive began when the facility was run by the Department of Agriculture. In 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and concerns over terrorists targeting U.S. livestock, control of Plum Island was shifted to the new DHS.
In 2006, DHS announced the plan for a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which it first described as a replacement lab to Plum Island that would be run at Bio-Safety Level 4. The lab would, said DHS, conduct “research [into] high-consequence biological threats involving human, zoonotic—i.e., transmitted from animals to humans—and foreign animal diseases.”
Initially, 18 possible sites were under consideration. The number was reduced by DHS to five “finalists.” Then, suddenly, last year, at a DHS public meeting at Southold Town Hall, DHS officials announced that Plum Island was being added as a sixth possible location.
The other five “finalists” for the new facility remain Texas Research Park in San Antonio; Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas; Umstead Research Farm in Granville County, North Carolina; University of Georgia in Athens; and Flora Industrial Park in Madison County, Mississippi. DHS wants to see it open by 2013 or 2014.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has been investigating the process through which DHS is choosing a site and is looking into accidents at the Plum Island facility, according to an April 12 Associated Press story.
Investigators from the committee have been querying DHS about a release in 1978 of foot-and-mouth disease virus to cattle in a holding pen outside the main laboratory on Plum Island, according to the AP story. “Other accidents inside the government’s laboratory” on Plum Island were also being scrutinized, AP reported.
The AP report added that “the accidents are significant because the administration is likely to move foot-and-mouth research from the remote island to one of five sites on the U.S. mainland near livestock herds,” the five other locations for the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. “This has raised concerns about the risks of a catastrophic outbreak of the disease, which does not sicken humans but can devastate the livestock industry.”
A caption for a photo of a Plum Island laboratory illustrating the AP article read: “The Bush administration plans to move its research on one of the most feared animal diseases,” foot-and-mouth disease, “from an island laboratory to a new facility on the U.S. mainland near herds of livestock, raising concerns about the possibility of an economically catastrophic outbreak.”
Mr. Bishop, whose district includes Plum Island, said it was his understanding that Plum Island would continue, after the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility opened, in operation for research on foot-and-mouth disease. He said that, before the Plum Island center opened, “an Act of Congress was passed that stipulated that foot-and-mouth only be studied in an island location to protect livestock,” establishing a key mission for the Plum Island facility. A “decision to remove this work from Plum Island would require a change” in the act, he said.