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Report: Plum Island needs major upgrades

To the left, an undated file photo provided

To the left, an undated file photo provided by the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows Plum Island. Pictured to the right is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Plum Island off of the east coast of Long Island. (Feb. 16, 2004) Credit: AP; Ed Betz

The "aging and increasingly inefficient" animal disease center at Plum Island needs to be replaced with a more modern facility, but its foot-and-mouth disease research must be supported until a successor can be built, according to a new federal report.

The 133-page study by the National Academy of Sciences follows a mandate by the Department of Homeland Security to expand animal disease research and build the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan., at a cost of $1.14 billion. While the federal government has yet to fully fund the new facility, projections have it opening by 2020.

Homeland Security and the U.S. General Services Administration have undertaken studies of possible new uses for Plum Island, ranging from protecting the island from development to allowing high-density housing. Southold Town officials have said they prefer using existing buildings on the island for new research and oppose high-density development.

The research center employs about 200 people, half from Connecticut, and about 66 who live in Southold.

The new study makes clear that Plum Island's days as a research facility are limited and the costs to upgrade it to higher-level research are prohibitive.

"The aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center facilities are in need of substantial improvements," the study concluded, noting $90 million would be needed for a liquid-waste decontamination facility and improvements to Plum Island and Orient harbors, and technology upgrades. To continue for 25 years, the facility would require $210 million in upgrades, the report said.

Additionally, the study concluded, the facilities "do not meet current standards for high-biocontainment laboratories" and could not accommodate that high-level work.

Plum Island "has been able to provide the basic facilities for research, diagnosis, and training needed for the protection of the United States against foreign animal diseases for more than 50 years, but there are several important limitations in its laboratory capacity," the report stated.

Those limitations don't preclude foot-and-mouth disease work continuing until a new facility and research partnerships are completed. "Because foot-and-mouth disease research remains critical for the U.S. animal health system, it will be essential to support it [Plum Island] until an alternative facility is authorized, constructed, commissioned, and approved for work with foot-and-mouth disease virus," the report concluded.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said the report confirms that "vital research being performed today at Plum Island . . . will continue for many years to come."

The facility consists of 50 buildings, the largest being a 190,500-square-foot laboratory. The federal property includes a 9.5-acre ferry terminal with parking lot at Orient Point.

The government has owned Plum Island since 1826. It became the animal disease center in 1954 and was transferred to Homeland Security in 2003.

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