01/20/13 10:45am

plum-gut-web

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 …”

12/26/12 8:00am

It’s what the Suffolk County Legislature is noted for — passing first-in-the-nation laws.

And the panel has done it again, passing a measure that bans receipts coated with the chemical BPA, the acronym for Bisphenol-A, which has been found to be a cause of cancer and other health maladies.

“Once again this institution is going to set the standard for other states to follow,” declared Legislator Steve Stern of Huntington after the passage of his bill December 4.

And County Executive Steve Bellone intends to sign it into law.

BPA has become common, used widely to harden plastics and as a coating inside cans of beverages and food. Another use is coating the paper used for receipts enabling it to become “thermal paper” and react to heat to print numbers and words.

In 2009, the Suffolk Legislature enacted a first-in-the-nation law — also authored by Stern — prohibiting the use of BPA in baby bottles and other beverage containers used by children under three. Mr. Stern was made aware of the health dangers of BPA by Karen Joy Miller, founder of Prevention is the Cure, an initiative of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition. Prevention is the Cure emphasizes the elimination of the causes of cancer.

Ms. Miller testified at the legislative session at which the measure passed 16-to-1: “We’ve got to end this disease [cancer], and a bad-acting chemical [like BPA] is at the top of the list.” After the vote, she commended “Legislator Stern and the Suffolk County Legislature for taking this important step to protect public health.”

Mr. Stern’s “Safer Sales Slip Act” was also backed by Dr. Philip Landrigan, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and dean for Global Health with the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. It will protect “the health of the public by reducing exposures to BPA for all Suffolk County families and, most especially, pregnant or nursing women, and women of childbearing age … As leaders in pediatrics and preventive medicine, we strongly support this legislation.”

Meanwhile, claiming that BPA is safe was Stephen Rosario of the American Chemistry Council. Millions of tons of BPA are now manufactured annually and the American Chemistry Council has led the charge in defending the substance.

The Stern bill declares that the Suffolk Legislature “finds and determines that BPA is a synthetic estrogen which disrupts healthy development and can lead to an altered immune system, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, reproductive health problems, increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, obesity and diabetes.”

The bill refers to Stern’s earlier “Toxin Free Toddlers and Babies Act.” He noted that since the passage of “this groundbreaking ban,” a national counterpart of the measure was enacted — “finally, this summer” — by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Of receipts coated with BPA, the bill states that “thermal paper can transfer onto anything it contacts, including skin” and through the skin to  “be absorbed … into the body … This dermal exposure to BPA poses a risk to public health and particularly to those whose employment requires distribution of such receipts.” Moreover, “the thermal paper containing BPA is also utilized in bank receipts and at automated teller  machines and gas pump receipts, creating multiple and ubiquitous points of exposure in daily life.”

The bill cites research that has determined that workers employed at retail and food service industries, where BPA-containing thermal paper is most commonly used, have an average of 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than adults employed in other professions.”

And, critically, as the legislation notes, there are several manufacturers that produce thermal paper that does not contain BPA. That’s the way it is for toxic products and processes: there are safe alternatives for them. There are safe substitutes for virtually every deadly product and process. The problem? Vested interests that continue to push and defend them.

The Stern law carries penalties of $500 for the first violation and $1,000 “for each subsequent violation.” It hopefully will be replicated far and wide.

12/02/12 10:54am

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at a press conference in May.

The judge’s determination couldn’t have been stronger.

“Without reservation and without doubt,” declared Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gazzillo, “it is beyond the power of a county to restrict the number of times that such county’s district attorney, sheriff and/or clerk may run for office.”

Nevertheless, there‘s a move by some on the Suffolk County Legislature to appeal Justice Gazzillo’s decision that the 12-year term-limit rule set by the legislature in 1993 for the county’s DA, sheriff and clerk is invalid.

Speaking against an appeal has been Edward Romaine, a county legislator until Monday when he was sworn in as Brookhaven Town supervisor. “The county is in a fiscal crisis and this is a time for us to be careful with taxpayer money,” said Mr. Romaine, whose district has included Shelter Island.

However, a vote on an appeal has been postponed, and Mr. Romaine won’t be a member of the legislature when it’s taken, which begs the question: Will the remaining members of the legislature be sensible like Mr. Romaine?

Public money involved in an appeal is, of course, a major issue in a county that’s cutting back dramatically on services. Why waste tax dollars on an appeal of a judicial verdict that was so emphatic and clear? But even more important: Why act on something which could end the tenure of the best district attorney Suffolk County has had in modern times?

Tom Spota, originally a Republican who ran for DA as a Democrat in 2001, taking on then incumbent James M. Catterson Jr. — a Republican who had politicized the office — has demonstrated he’s beyond politics. Indeed, that’s why he ran by acclamation in his two campaigns for re-election, appearing on all party lines.

Spota’s demonstrated, too, that prosecutorial over-reaching isn’t part of his make-up. The website of the DA’s office is now headed with the banner: “The duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”

In his years as Suffolk DA, Mr. Spota has been measured, fair, careful and extremely active. Whether taking on governmental corruption in Suffolk (a long and dubious tradition here), drug trafficking, organized crime, gang violence, and everything else a good DA is supposed to attack, he’s been at it vigorously, unlike many Suffolk DAs who preceded him.

The term-limits rule was enacted by the Suffolk Legislature at a time when, as the rule’s “legislative intent” section said, citizen dissatisfaction with long-serving elected officials had “reached a fever pitch” and there was a view that public officials could “entrench themselves.” That wasn’t incorrect then or now. But term-limits weren’t applied where they have been especially needed — to members of Congress or the New York State Legislature, as examples, who through gerrymandering have carved out safe districts enabling them to get re-elected endlessly.

Suffolk has been the only one of the 62 counties in the state to impose term limits on its DA, sheriff and clerk. As the legal challenge to the rule brought by DA Spota, incumbent Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and incumbent County Clerk Judith Pascale stressed, all are “quasi-state” positions and Suffolk County was “without authority” in imposing term limits on them. They are “defined by state law for law enforcement and administrative activities.” Thus “only the governor of the State of New York may remove or fill a vacancy in the offices of district attorney, sheriff or county clerk.”

Justice Gazzillo in September fully agreed. “The authority to promulgate additional qualifications” like term limits “is solely vested with and retained by the state,” he stated.

Incidentally, Justice Gazzillo wasn’t ruling from a judicial ivory tower. He has plenty of life experience in government and law. He’s a retired New York City police sergeant, was an assistant Suffolk DA and law secretary to judges including Suffolk’s Gail Prudenti, now chief administrative judge of all New York State courts. He was elected a Suffolk District Court judge, then elected to County Court where he served as supervising judge of all criminal courts in Suffolk.

Commenting in the New York Law Journal on the decision, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York — which filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case — said it “upholds the independence and integrity of each of New York’s 62 district attorneys.”

This is no decision to waste county tax dollars appealing.

11/18/12 10:00am

JOHN GRIFFIN FILE PHOTO | Congressman Tim Bishop speaks to reporters on election night.

In analyzing Election 2012 in Suffolk County, the race in the First Congressional District was the nastiest I’ve ever seen in my 50 years observing and writing about contests in this eastern Long Island district.

Whether they involved Otis Pike or George Hochbrueckner, Felix Grucci or Mike Forbes, Gregory Blass or Regina Seltzer, Walter Ormsby or Jack Hart (among others who have run through these five decades), I’ve never seen anything like it.

“Corrupt Career Politician Tim Bishop” Republican Randy Altschuler trumpeted over and over again in voluminous advertising, in print and on TV and radio. “Career Politician Tim Bishop abuses the system at our expense,” it was repeatedly claimed. “Tim Bishop: The Only Job He Cares About Is His Own.” The continuous barrage of deeply negative advertising was financed not only by the Altschuler campaign but by outside entities. Incumbent Bishop says that $3.5 million came from outside groups “to attack me.” It was, says Mr. Bishop, the “most expensive Congressional race in Long Island’s history.”

Mr. Bishop returned fire by zeroing in on how Mr. Altschuler became a millionaire by pioneering outsourcing, setting up a company that specialized in providing workers overseas for U.S. businesses. He cited Mr. Altschuler’s statement that, “In India, you get a much higher standard of person.”

Does Mr. Altschuler’s second loss to Mr. Bishop, and the central focus both times on outsourcing, point to it being a permanent albatross, a fatal political flaw for Mr. Altschuler? Quite likely. Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle spoke of Mr. Altschuler’s background in outsourcing as being among his “flaws” when Mr. LaValle initially wouldn’t support Mr. Altschuler for the GOP’s lst CD nomination in 2010.

This year Mr. Altschuler stressed that his company, OfficeTiger, also “created jobs in America” — printed in bold in campaign literature, adding, in normal type, “and around the world.” His material declared him “a job creator.”

It all didn’t work. Mr. Bishop far surpassed his narrow win over Mr. Altschuler of 2010.

And he did it without the backing of the Independence Party. Under that organization’s Suffolk County and New York State chairman, Frank MacKay, the Independence designation went to Mr. Altschuler. But that didn’t matter either.

Also not mattering was that Newsday, which historically has liked to function as a kingmaker in Long Island politics, editorially endorsed Mr. Altschuler rather than 10-year incumbent Bishop. (Another Newsday endorsement this year which didn’t work out was its support for Mitt Romney for president.)

Election 2012 will continue the sad trend of an absence of women officials from Suffolk at the state level. Of the 15 representatives from Suffolk in state government, there won’t be a single woman. Bridget Fleming, a Southampton Town councilwoman running on the Democratic ticket, was the only woman in races for the four State Senate seats, and though waging a solid campaign, lost to long-time incumbent Republican Kenneth LaValle. The only woman up for State Assembly was Deborah McKee, on the Republican and Conservative lines, and she was trounced by long-time incumbent Democrat Steve Englebright.

With the election last week of Edward Romaine as Brookhaven Town supervisor, the Suffolk Legislature will lose a leading member. I’ve written about the Suffolk Legislature since it was created in 1970, and in my judgement, Republican Romaine, whose district has included Shelter Island, has been among the half-dozen finest county legislators in all those years. His departure leaves a huge vacuum. Will his protégé and long-time legislative aide, Bill Faulk, get the GOP nod to replace him?

And, most remarkably, Democrats won five of six state Supreme Court seats in the judicial district covering Suffolk and Nassau. Years ago, a Democratic judicial nomination in Republican-dominated Suffolk was tantamount to a suicide run. Among the GOP losers was incumbent Republican Justice James M. Catterson, son of the former Suffolk DA.

The political demographics and direction of Suffolk County have changed through the years — as they also have in the United States, as demonstrated by the re-election of Barack Obama. Still, we have much to work on here in the fair representation of women in government.

11/11/12 12:00pm

GIANNA VOLPE FILE PHOTO | A view above Shelter Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

As I write this (last Sunday), electricity is still out for thousands of homes and businesses in Suffolk County — and out, too, for thousands of people in Nassau, New York City, as well as a large part of the Northeast. The snaking gasoline lines are unprecedented, eclipsing the situation during the oil crisis of 1973-1974.

It might be premature at this stage to consider lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy but some things are obvious. The so-called “Frankenstorm,” awing us with the power of nature in its fury, has demonstrated the folly of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to dump sand along ocean beaches to supposedly “fortify” them. In a matter of hours, that strategy, along with the sand on the affected Mid-Atlantic coastline, was washed away.

Sandy also brought the issues of climate change and global warming home to us in a hurry. Bloomberg Businessweek, the polar opposite of a radical journal, put Sandy on its cover with the headline: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was asked at a press conference last week whether, in view of global warming and the greater frequency of major storms, Suffolk needs to change its land-use policies. “I think what you say is correct. It’s something to think about when power is restored,” he said.

It is, indeed, something to “think about.” But thinking only goes so far; more importantly, nations should be taking action to significantly reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which is heating up the planet.

Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of physics at City University of New York, commenting on the killer storm, asked, “Is this related to global warming? … Global warming is heating up the waters, and warm water is the basic energy source driving a hurricane … So global warming is actually the weather on steroids. This is consistent with the 100 year floods, 100 year forest fires, 100 year droughts that we seem to have [now] every few years. So is this the new normal? We cannot say with certainty, but a case can be made that this wacky weather is, in part, driven by global warming.”

Land-use policies on the coast need to change — especially the use of tax dollars “encouraging people to live in harm’s way,” as the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said in a statement last week. “The storm should heighten awareness about the dangers of federal policies that encourage development in risk-prone areas. Key among these is the National Flood Insurance Program which is expected to pick up as much as half of the $20 billion in economic losses Sandy is projected to produce. The 44-year-old NFIP is the federal government’s second largest fiscal liability, behind only Social Security, with taxpayers on the hook for the program’s $1.25 trillion of coverage.”

Private insurance companies are reluctant to insure houses built on shifting sands in the teeth of the ocean, so the U.S. government — under enormous pressure from the beachfront homeowner lobby — has stepped in with our tax dollars.

Then there’s the Army Corps of Engineers and beachfront homeowners forever pushing for sand-dumping or “beach replenishment.” As Eli Lehrer, R Street’s president, said in a media conference call in which I participated last week: “I would say the ideal federal percentage for ‘beach replenishment’ is zero.”

Barrier beaches such as those along Suffolk’s south shore need to move with nature to protect the mainland and not be tailored to suit real estate interests. Old-time Long Islanders will tell you that not until “modern” times did people dream of building on barrier beaches.

Then there’s “undergrounding” of electric lines. In 1991, East Hampton Natural Resources Director Larry Penny called for undergrounding the lines running between Amagansett and Montauk, along the eight-mile Napeague stretch. Many of the poles holding lines had gone down that year in Hurricane Bob and the nor’easter later known as “The Perfect Storm” and the Long Island Lighting Company agreed to Mr. Penny’s request. Although the Napeague stretch was severely battered by Sandy, electricity in most of Montauk stayed on.

“They say undergrounding is expensive,” said Mr. Penny last week. “But in the long run, you save a lot of money in tree-trimming, repairs after a storm and economic disruption.”

Sandy underlined a potentially catastrophic consequence involving nuclear power plants. It affected several, including Oyster Creek in New Jersey, where the storm surge nearly overwhelmed critical cooling systems, including one maintaining a pool of thousands of hotly radioactive spent fuel rods. Oyster Creek is 90 miles southwest of Suffolk.

Could a future superstorm set off an American Fukushima-like disaster?