Public healthHope for Plum Island in unease about Kansas biolab?

Published 15 December 2010

Last month the National Research Council issued a safety report which concluded that there is a 70 percent chance of pathogen release from the proposed Manhattan, Kansas BioLab-4 over a 50-year period; The New York congressional delegation points out that upgrading safety at Plum island will cost far less than the $400 million price tag for the Kansas lab

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is a Biosafety Level 3 research facility used to study animal diseases. Opened in 1954 on Plum Island, which is located off the cost of eastern Long Island in the Long Island Sound, the eponymous facility is notable because of the secrecy and controversy that has surrounded the island including a secret biological weapons program started in 1952 by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps when the island was home to Fort Terry. That program continued after control of the island was handed to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) until it was ended in 1969 by President Richard Nixon. Since 2003 it has been a joint operation of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security.

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is the only facility in the United States that is allowed to study live forms of the virus that causes Foot and Mouth disease because of a Congressional law forbidding study of the live virus on the mainland. This disease is disease highly contagious to cloven hoofed animals such as cows and pigs and an outbreak could decimate the U.S. food supply. The disease is not harmful to humans, however people can become carriers of the disease and pass it to other animals. Foot and Mouth disease was eradicated in the United States in the 1929, but it is still common in many areas of the world with the most recent outbreak in Japan and South Korea in 2010.

Last year congress approved $32 million to design and plan a Biosafety Level 4 facility in Kansaswhich, which, in addition to studying animal diseases, would be able to study diseases that can be harmful to both animals and humans, something that is not done at PlumIsland. Congress also ordered a safety study after it was pointed out that studying a pathogen, such as Foot and Mouth disease, which is highly contagious to cows in the middle of the country’s “beef belt” might not be a good idea, especially since it would become a high priority terrorist target. Last month the National Research Council issued its report and concluded that this could in fact be a problem, and that there is a 70 percent chance of pathogen release over a 50-year period (“Report: DHS underestimates risks of accidental pathogen release at Kansas BioLab,” 19 November 2010 HSNW).

The cattle industry and independent security experts have voiced their opposition to the Manhattan, Kansas location for the new BioLab4 facility since it was selected a year-and-a-half ago. They argue that the new site is in a tornado-prone area, increasing considerably the chances of a disaster which might result in the release of lethal pathogens (“Some in the livestock industry worry about disease lab’s Kansas location,” 15 October 2009 HSNW).

Some, including Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have called for the Plum Island facility closure citing the same fear of pathogen release. In a critique of a DHS risk assessment of Plum Island while he was Attorney General of Connecticut he wrote : “[DHS’s] draft environmental impact statement is profoundly flawed — factually deficient, and legally insufficient mis-assessing (sic) the monstrous risks of siting a proposed national bio- and agro-defense facility on Plum Island” (“Blumenthal: Impact statement regarding Plum Island seriously flawed,” 8 September 2008 HSNW).

If the facility at Plum Island is closed there is a question about what would become of the island. Proposals range from using the island to develop new energy technologies to selling it for private development. There are also questions about the approximately 200 scientists and support staff that currently work at the facility. Many of the scientists would presumably be transferred to the new facility, however most of the support staff would likely be laid off.

The New York Congressional delegation is opposed to the closure and relocation of the facility, citing safety, cost, and jobs concerns. U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, whose district includes the facility, said in a letter to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee that the sale of the island for private development would only fetch $50 to $80 million, which would not cover the cost of building a new laboratory in Kansas estimated at over $400 million. The delegation also notes that the facility’s current location on an island adds an extra level of protection against the accidental release of disease that could significantly impact the food supply of the United States. The New York delegation have been bolstered by the conclusions of the NRC report and say they will continue to fight against the facility’s closure.