Journalism / New Haven Register

Plum Island on feds’ list for deadly disease lab

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
Aug. 13, 2008

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is looking at Plum Island as one of six potential sites for a new livestock laboratory to study contagious animal and human diseases.

The island, located off the eastern tip of the north fork of Long Island, N.Y., is just miles from the Connecticut shoreline. It is the site of the country’s Animal Disease Center. Scientists there study foot and mouth disease and other foreign animal diseases with the goal of developing vaccines and antiviral treatments, according to the Homeland Security Department.

But the facility is old and undersized, and the department is planning to build a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility that would handle Biosafety Levels 3 and 4, the highest research designations.

In addition to Plum Island, the department is considering locations in Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Flora, Miss.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio, Texas.

All of the other locations are on the U.S. mainland.

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is a Level 3 facility. The higher level involves “work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease,” according to the department. A Level 4 center — which would comprise about 10 percent of the total site — would allow scientists to study diseases that can transfer from animals to humans.

Department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the new facility would build on Plum Island’s work with livestock. Other Biosafety Level 4 research facilities exist in the country, she said, but not with the space for handling large animals.

“Basically the kind of research that we do at Plum Island, it’s the only facility like it,” Kudwa said. “The proposed (National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility) would expand upon and move into the 21st century our research currently conducted at Plum Island.”

The new facility would study diseases including foot and mouth disease, classical and African swine fever, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, and the Nipah and Hendra viruses, according to the department.

Of the six locations under consideration, Kudwa said, Plum Island is the only one with an existing facility. The department is compiling environmental-impact statements for the sites and is planning to make a final decision about the facility’s location by the end of the year.

The department has been holding public input sessions in recent weeks near the proposed sites. There were meetings this week in Old Saybrook and Greenport, N.Y. The department’s draft impact statements are open for public comment until Aug. 25.

“We’ll incorporate the comments we receive during the comment period, finalize the environmental-impact statement and anticipate a final decision on how best to proceed by the end of this year,” Kudwa said. “We’re also looking at a number of other things (like) cost of construction and site characterization.”

Old Saybrook resident Nancy Czarzasty said she is concerned that not enough local people are aware of the possible changes at the island. She said she has not made up her mind about whether she supports the choice of Plum Island as the site of the new facility.

“I don’t know enough yet to make that decision and that is my concern,” she said. “This has been on the table for years and no one seems to know about this and we’re supposed to be submitting input from our communities.”

The process for selecting the site of the new facility began in 2006, Kudwa said. From 29 initial submissions, officials whittled down the group to the six under discussion.

With the current Plum Island facility “aging” and “nearing the end of its life cycle,” according to the department, it may not be in operation much longer if another location is chosen for the new research center.

“We don’t anticipate the new (facility) would be operational until fiscal year 2015, so we are making investments in the (Plum Island) property so that it does meet our needs in the near term,” Kudwa said. “But we undertook this process with the understanding that it would not meet our research needs into the future.”

More information on the selection of the new site is available on the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site at http://www.dhs.gov/nbaf. Anyone with input on the process can contact the department through e-mail at nbafprogrammanager@dhs.gov; by fax at (866) 508-NBAF (6223); by phone at (866) 501-NBAF; or at U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, James V. Johnson, Mail Stop #2100, 245 Murray Lane, S.W., Building 410, Washington, D.C. 20528.

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