August 25, 2005

Plum Island Disease Research Center May Move

NEW YORK -- The Department of Homeland Security is considering moving the aging Plum Island animal disease laboratory off eastern Long Island - a possibility that prompted two lawmakers on Wednesday to request a meeting with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Timothy Bishop, a Long Island Democrat whose district includes Plum Island, requested the meeting in response to the release of a Homeland Security "fact sheet" on Monday that examines the options for the future of the laboratory.

Located off the eastern tip of Long Island's north fork, Plum Island scientists have studied contagious animal diseases like foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever since the early 1950s. The former U.S. Army base, located on a tiny pork-chop shaped island, is also the only facility in the country that has vaccines for those diseases, making it a potential target for a terrorist attack on the agricultural economy.

The facility, which once was run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was made part of the Department of Homeland Security after that agency was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Agriculture Department scientists, however, still conduct much of the research at the lab.

The Homeland Security "fact sheet" noted that President Bush's 2006 budget has allocated $23 million to assess the needs for a new facility. "As our nation evaluates future research requirements in this area, the need to take specific steps to replace this aging facility to meet the new challenges of the coming decades has become increasingly clear," the fact sheet said.

One of the things that caused alarm for the two New York lawmakers, however, was a passage near the end of the fact sheet that noted, "the options for a location, or locations, for the biocontainment facilities have not been identified at this time, but will be considered during the conceptual design study."

In their letter to Chertoff, the senator and congressman said they "agree wholeheartedly that either the promised infrastructure improvements must be made or a new facility must be built." But, they said, "we strongly question the idea of relocating this facility from Plum Island, and question the underlying assumptions that have led your officials to believe this would make fiscal or policy sense."

In a statement, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy urged the Department of Homeland Security to meet with New York officials to make its intentions for the facility clear and to get local input.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Clinton and Bishop also complained that Chertoff's predecessor, Tom Ridge, had promised "full communication about the issues and developments that affect Plum Island and our common interests. Therefore, it is most disappointing to learn of your agency's plans for a facility of this significance by receiving a 'fact sheet.'"

Earlier this year, the union representing maintenance workers at the center ratified a contract that formally ended a two-year strike at the facility. During the walkout, there were frequent complaints by the union and others that security was being compromised because of the presence of replacement workers.

A 2003 report by the General Accounting Office - the investigative arm of Congress - also found security flaws but Homeland Security officials have since said those concerns have been addressed.