Suffolk Closeup: The battle of Plum Island

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The proposed replacement of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center by a “National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility” in Kansas has moved forward in the new year, with Hurricane Sandy providing an additional argument for Kansas backers of the proposed $1.14 billion facility.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) two weeks ago took ownership of 46 acres of land in Manhattan, Kansas for the new facility. “While there is much work to be done, signing of the land transfer agreement is a good step forward in securing the future health, wealth and security of our nation,” declared Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. He hoped building would start next year. At the same time in Washington, Kansas Senator Jerry Moran said damage inflicted by Sandy to Plum Island was another reason for DHS to move quickly to replace it.

In the $60 billion package for post-Sandy federal assistance that’s been before Congress, there’s $3.25 million allocated for “erosion control and repair work, rerouting and retrenching of the undersea power cable for backup power” at the Plum Island center.

Meanwhile, the federal government has taken steps to sell the 840-acre island located 1.5 miles off Orient Point. The Southold Town Board recently proposed the first zoning of Plum Island. Some 175 acres on its western side, where the center sits, would be limited to research use, and the rest preserved as open space.

The leading opponent to a shutdown of the facility is Representative Tim Bishop (D- Southampton). He’s concerned about the loss of its 200 federal jobs in his district. Mr. Bishop welcomed the Southold Town Zoning Board opinion,  saying it would help in his efforts to keep the center open.

But a major problem is its condition.

Last year, a National Research Council committee studied three options in “Meeting Critical Laboratory Needs for Animal Agriculture,” as its report was titled. One option was going ahead with the Kansas facility as “currently designed”; another was proceeding with a scaled-down version; and a third was “maintaining current capabilities at Plum Island Animal Disease Center.”

The report, issued in July, found: “The aging PIADC facilities are in need of substantial improvements. Initial rough estimates total $90 million for short-term improvements … while long-term improvements are estimated at $210 million.” It stated that the “basic building structure, the size of the animal rooms, and other ancillary infrastructures” at Plum Island “are seriously deficient for state-of-the-art research and diagnostic work at high bio-containment.” This main building — Laboratory 101 — “does not meet current standards.” It would require “continuing high annual operating costs and will continue to need renovations.”

Also, Plum Island “does not have capabilities” to function at “Biosafety Level-4,” the highest safety level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines Biosafety Level-4 as “required for work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease that is frequently fatal for which there are no vaccines or treatments.” DHS considers this work essential.

Opposition in Kansas to the planned facility is in play because it would be amid concentrations of cattle vulnerable to a release of the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease, the main malady studied at Plum Island. Mr. Bishop joined the chorus of protest, pointing out that Kansas is in “the heart of cattle country.”

On the other hand, Plum Island lies just off a crowded human population center of the U.S., vulnerable to “zoonotic diseases” (maladies affecting both animals and people) that are studied at the Plum Island center and will be researched more extensively in Kansas.

DHS took over Plum Island after 9/11 out of concern over terrorists attacking the U.S. food supply. Security for the exposed island has been a major concern. On its website, DHS says the Kansas facility “will be a state-of-the-art biocontainment facility for the study of foreign animal, emerging and zoonotic … diseases that threaten the U.S. animal agriculture and public health.” The Plum Island center “is nearing the end of its life-cycle and needs to be replaced in order to meet U.S. research requirements … Strategically, the NBAF [National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility] will boast of new and expanded capabilities, specifically, Biosafety Level-4 containment for the study of high-consequence diseases …”

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