Study spurs request to not phase out Plum Island

In this Feb. 16, 2004 file photo, a

In this Feb. 16, 2004 file photo, a security patrol jeep is parked in front of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Plum Island off of the east coast of New York's Long Island. (Credit: AP PHOTO)

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A new federal study on the plan to replace the animal disease laboratory on Plum Island with a new facility in Kansas says the Midwestern location would cause much more financial damage than the Long Island site if there were an accidental release of foot and mouth disease.

Spurred by the report, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) has written to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and urged her to "revisit the decision to phase out Plum Island, and further urge that the decision to build a replacement be revisited as well."

The study, prepared by the federal Government Accountability Office, states, "Given the significant limitations in DHS's analyses that we found, the conclusion that FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease) work can be done as safely on the mainland as on Plum Island is not supported."

Homeland Security wants to close Plum Island, classified as a level three biohazard facility, and replace it with a more advanced level four lab in Manhattan, Kan.

The 2010 federal budget has money to plan for the new animal disease center, but no construction funds have been appropriated.

"This study underscores the validity of why Plum Island was originally chosen," Bishop said. "I'm sobered by this report." The congressman said the proposal to replace Plum Island was "essentially a rush job . . . we still have time to correct it." About 300 people work at the lab.

The report notes that having a body of water separating a research lab from animal farms and human settlements provides an extra ring of protection against accidental release of the highly infectious foot and mouth disease.

The report cites an estimate by the Biodefense Knowledge Center, operated by the University of California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, that a single accidental release of foot and mouth disease at Plum Island could have a $31-million economic impact. But it says that the impact of a similar release in Manhattan, Kan., could be a little over $1 billion because it is a major livestock-producing area.

A Homeland Security spokesman did not return a call for comment.

As part of its initial study, the Department of Homeland Security said modern biocontainment technology made the likelihood of any release of pathogens extremely unlikely, and that foot-and-mouth research is already being done on the mainland in other countries.

In his formal response to the GAO report, Bradley Buswell, the acting undersecretary for science and technology, also noted the strong public opposition to building a BSL-4 research lab on Plum Island. By contrast, it does have support in Kansas and other proposed locations.

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