Animal Lab to Move


Mystery around remote NY island begins to lift as storied animal research lab heads west

FRANK ELTMAN Associated Press Writer

Plum Island Lab

Caption: This undated file photo provided by the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the coast of New York's Long Island. The federal government is looking for the public's input on what to do with the island now that plans are under way to move an animal research lab there to Kansas. (AP Photo/ARS-USDA/File) (Anonymous, AP / August 9, 2006)

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. (AP) — Hannibal Lecter, the fictional villain in "Silence of the Lambs," said it sounded "charming." Author Nelson DeMille made it the centerpiece of his 1997 thriller about deadly viruses and hidden treasure.

Since the infancy of the Cold War, Plum Island has been the site of an animal disease laboratory; access is limited to scientists, support personnel and, on rare occasions, invited guests. Because of its remote location a mile and half off the eastern tip of Long Island's north fork, it frequently has been the target of rife speculation about what really goes on there.

The general public could someday get access to the 840-acre pork chop-shaped oasis now that the federal government is moving its animal disease research functions to a new lab in Manhattan, Kan. With a "For Sale" sign about to go up at Plum Island, the General Services Administration is seeking community input on what should be done with the property. A hearing was held Wednesday in Connecticut and another is scheduled for Thursday on Long Island.

Besides the laboratory, the island is home to a defunct U.S. Army base and a charming little lighthouse that looks out onto Long Island Sound. And, as Agent Clarice Starling told Lecter: "There's a very, very nice beach. Terns nest there."

DeMille, whose 1997 book "Plum Island," about a fictional detective investigating the murders of two biologists who worked at the lab, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week that he'd like the government to retain ownership.
"The most obvious thing to do would be to make it into a federal park and nature preserve," he said. "You could turn the lab into a visitors center."

DeMille is hardly nostalgic about the lab moving to Kansas, calling Plum Island "a terrorist target waiting to happen."

His concerns were shared by federal officials. The U.S. Government Accountability Office told Congress in a 2007 security report that Plum Island's vulnerability was apparent after the 9/11 terror attacks. The GAO said new laws and rules were enacted, tightening access to the facility to help protect animal health and reduce the possibility of bioterrorism. Plum Island was transferred from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security and plans were begun to replace it with a "higher-level biosecurity facility."

The GAO said Plum Island scientists research such pathogens as foot-and-mouth disease, which is highly contagious to livestock and could cause "catastrophic economic losses" and imperil the nation's food supply.

"Other pathogens known to have been maintained at Plum Island could also cause illness and death in humans," the GAO said.

Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which operates the island, declined to provide specific details of security, but said it includes security patrols, checkpoints, cameras, radar, locks and fences.

"The closer you get to the items you want to protect, the more intense the security becomes," she said.

Before any discussions about development at Plum Island can proceed, officials must first determine the extent of any damage to the soil and water, environmentalist Adrienne Esposito said.

"Any time a government facility is cloaked in secrecy, you have to wonder about what went on," said Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "The more you look, the more you find. This would be the first time a comprehensive examination of the island would be pursued."

U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose district includes Plum Island, is not convinced the move to Kansas is a good idea. He said in a letter to a House homeland security subcommittee this week that the sale of Plum Island could fetch $50 million to $80 million — not counting cleanup costs. Bishop said that would hardly cover the costs of building a new $650 million lab in Kansas.

"Before we cross a point of no return, I want everyone to open their eyes and look at what we're doing here," Bishop said. "Rather than pour hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars down a sinkhole in Kansas and open the Pandora's Box of decommissioning Plum Island, we should ... make use of existing facilities that continue to serve this nation well."

Last year, Congress appropriated $32 million for a new 520,000-square-foot National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas, most of it for planning and design, though it did order a safety study. The new lab will allow research on diseases that can be passed from animals to humans, something currently not done at Plum Island.

The safety study was prompted by some who questioned the wisdom of opening an animal disease lab in the so-called Beef Belt because hoof and mouth and other contagious diseases are researched by Agriculture Department scientists.

But for now, the move to Kansas appears on track, which leaves the future of Plum Island an open question.

The town supervisor in Southold, where the lab is located, said he would like to replace the 300 or so scientists working on animal research with some type of renewable energy center.,0,4570712.story


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