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Obama budget proposal ominous for Plum Island

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is part

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is part of the Department of Homeland Security. (Feb. 16, 2004). Credit: AP

In a proposal that could further push government research at Plum Island toward an end, President Barack Obama's proposed budget released last week included $714 million to complete an animal disease testing facility in Kansas.

It's the federal government's most significant financial commitment to the proposed replacement for the facility off the North Fork of Long Island, which Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described as "inadequate" in written congressional testimony on Thursday.

Building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, she said, was an important investment for the study of foreign animal diseases and diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans.

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center -- on an 840-acre island off Orient Point -- has been operating since 1954, but the facility "is nearing the end of its life-cycle and needs to be replaced," according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Even if Congress appropriates the money for the facility at Kansas State University, construction will take years. The Plum Island facility is expected to remain open for at least another 10 years as a federal operation.

Kansas' two U.S. senators, both Republicans, crowed about Obama's funding request, which needs congressional approval and another $202 million from the state of Kansas.

But New York's congressional delegation vowed to fight the appropriation, blasting the Kansas facility as unsafe and a waste of money.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) called it a "billion-dollar boondoggle" and noted the Republican senators opposed funding for Sandy victims. "I will continue my fight against this unnecessary and unaffordable facility," Bishop said in a statement.

In statements, Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (both D-N.Y.), said they would also oppose the Kansas appropriation. "I strongly disagree with his [Obama's] recommendation," Schumer said.

About 100 scientists and 300 support personnel work at the Plum Island facility. About 40 percent of those workers live on Long Island, and the rest commute by ferry from Connecticut, said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell.

Russell said the proposed appropriation was "surprising news given the issues involved."

He said the new research facility is in the middle of cattle country. Some ranching groups have opposed the facility for fear that diseases could spread among cattle.

One of Plum Island's latest breakthroughs is on a new vaccine against the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease for cattle.

Southold Town, which includes Plum Island, plans to soon adopt zoning to "keep the core research facility area active with research," with or without federal funding, Russell said.

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