August 16, 2006

No Bioterror Lab for Plum Island

Although it is no longer being considered as a possible site for a bioterror lab, the 55-year-old Plum Island Animal Research Center will still receive $35 million in federal funding for facility upgrades and expansion.

Last week, federal officials announced that the facility was not included on a list of 18 locations cited for potential use as a National Bio and Agro-Defense facility, and there are no other locations in New York State on that list.

The Plum Island center is currently a Biosafety Level 3 lab, researching the effects of foreign contagious animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth and African swine fever.

Had it been selected, Plum Island would have become home to a Biosafety Level 4 facility, which involves the study of more serious diseases, such as Anthrax or the Ebola Virus, which can pass from human to human.

New York officials welcomed the news happily, hoping that the money will allow the center to remain open after 2013, at which point a national lab is scheduled for opening.

"This community does not want a Biosafety Level 4 facility and I am pleased to say we won't be getting one," said Congressman Tim Bishop. "I am also pleased that important upgrades will be made to the security and infrastructure of Plum Island. These improvements strengthen the case that Senator Clinton and I have been making, that Plum Island continues to serve a vital role in our nation's biodefense."

New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "As the people of the surrounding communities have said, Plum Island is the wrong location for the study of highly contagious human diseases, and I am pleased that a Biosafety Level 4 facility won't be built there."

Federal officials have insisted that the homeland security funding should not be interpreted as a long-term commitment.

In the post-September 11th era, the center has been a highlight of controversy. In August 2002, Plum Island management suffered a loss of over half a million dollars in government funds in a strike with the island's union workers. In December of that same year the backup generators failed and the center lost power for 3 hours.

In 2003, the facility shifted ownership. Originally under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, the facility switched hands to the Department of Homeland security. Later in the year, the center suffered an alarming security breach after a laptop computer of unknown importance disappeared from the biocontaminant building.

In 2004, an unidentified whistleblower was fired for bringing the security risks to public attention. He was vindicated, however, by a report issued soon thereafter by the General Accounting Office. The report revealed that in the year prior, eight foreign scientists without proper background checks had been allowed free reign of the biocontaminant area. It was officially pronounced a threat to national security by the government.

The $35 million will be used to create a new 8,000 square foot animal wing, a conversion of the existing 2,500 square feet into BSL-3 space, and a new firehouse/motor pool building. The water system, electrical system, coldwater chillers and the wastewater decontamination system will also be updated.

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