The Plum Island debateNew York officials want Plum Island to remain a Level-3 BioLab

Published 8 September 2008

DHS is considering upgrading the Plum Island BioLab from Level-3 to Level-4 so it could conduct research into the deadliest diseases; the department argues that Plum Island’s relative isolation would make an accidental pathogen release less costly relatively to such release from a mainland-based lab; New York officials strongly disagree

New York State business and political leaders agree with Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal that the lum Island facility should not be upgraded to a Level-4 BioLab, but they argue that it would be safe to keep it operating at its current level as a Level-3 Biolab. This is not DHS’s view. Denise Civiletti writes in the Suffolk Times that DHS’s environmental impact statement argues that “Plum Island is the best place for a new biosafety level four research facility in terms of the economic consequences that would result should the deadly foot and mouth disease virus be released from the lab.” The economic losses as a result of such a release at Plum Island would total an estimated $2.8 billion in Suffolk County, compared with estimated losses of $4.2 billion in Riley County, Kansas, the location of one of five alternative sites for the construction of the new lab.

If the federal government decides to build the lab on Plum Island, it would be constructed on approximately twenty-four acres adjacent to and east of the existing facility there, which has been operated on Plum Island since 1954. Plum Island’s existing laboratory, a biosafety level three lab, is “nearing the end of its life cycle,” according to the draft environmental impact statement. A BSL-4 rating means the lab is equipped for the study of “exotic pathogens that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease in animals and humans through the aerosol route and for which there is no known vaccine or therapy,” the statement says. The new lab would focus on the Hendra and Nipah viruses, in addition to diseases and pathogens that could have devastating impact on livestock but pose little threat to humans, such as African swine fever, classical swine fever, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, foot and mouth disease, Japanese encephalitis, and Rift Valley fever. The principal purpose of the lab would be to protect the country’s $100 billion-per-year livestock industry from foreign diseases and bioterrorist attack.

Such research comes with known risks of hazards to animals and humans, the impact statement says, but “these risks were shown to be mitigated by implementation of operation protocols and rigid adherence to the guidelines” issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the implementation of appropriate security measures. Nevertheless, conducting animal disease research on the mainland is riskier than continuing the work on the 840-acre island located 1.5 miles off Orient Point, the impact statement concludes: “[C]ompared to the existing [Plum Island] facility, a potential release of pathogens from a mainland facility might more readily affect commercial livestock, wildlife, and possibly human populations, depending on the alternative site’s proximity to livestock producing areas and the density of human populations.”

In the summer, though, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in which it concluded that DHS “lacks evidence to conclude that foot and mouth disease research can be safely conducted on the U.S. mainland.”

Local and federal elected officials have voiced opposition to siting the Level-4 BioLab on Plum Island. Representative Tim Bishop and Senator Hillary Clinton both say DHS has assured them that the new lab will be built elsewhere. “This draft report does not change the assurances that we have been given by the Department of Homeland Security and others that Plum Island is not suitable for Biosafety Level 4,” Clinton said in a statement issued by her office.

Bishop, Clinton, and Southold Supervisor Scott Russell all advocate upgrading and maintaining the BSL-3 lab on Plum Island for continued foot and mouth disease research. The facility employs more than 300 residents of Suffolk County and Connecticut.

DHS took over operation of Plum Island from the Department of Agriculture in June 2003. A 2002 presidential directive requires the agency to develop a state-of-the-art BSL-4 facility for animal and zoonotic disease research in the United States. DHS has yet to rule out upgrading the Plum Island facility for continued BSL-3 operations, but sees this option as less cost-effective than combining the current BSL-3 lab with the new BSL-4 facility it is required to construct. Construction of the new lab could start in early 2010 and would take about four years to complete.