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What about Plum?

Future of animal disease research center questioned

By Denise Civiletti – The Suffolk Times

 A standing-room-only crowd confronted Homeland Security officials Tuesday night about plans for Plum Island that could include a new biosafety level 4 facility — the highest level lab, where pathogens potentially deadly to humans may be studied. Dissatisfaction with information forthcoming from the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency that took over operation of the 52-year-old animal-disease research center in 2003, was the theme of Tuesday evening’s comments. DHS had scheduled an informal question-and-answer session for the Southold community, billed as a chance to discuss the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, that will replace the aging research center off the tip of Orient Point. But many residents asked pointed questions about the safeguards currently in place to protect the community from accidental or intentional releases of viruses or bacteria from the existing lab. When officials said the public risk is minimal and a release of pathogens is not likely, Marie Domenici of Mattituck retorted, “That’s why accidents are called accidents and not appointments.” “I’m not familiar with that document,” said Jamie Johnson, NBAF program manager for the agency.

Residents peppered a panel of federal officials with questions about the future of the facility and complained loudly about some of the answers they got.

“We’re here for a very specific agenda,” Greenport resident Melanie Norden called out from her seat in the audience, interrupting a presentation by Department of Homeland Security architect Eugene Cole. “We’re not here to hear about the history of Plum Island,” she said, responding to the prior introductory comments of three other panelists, who gave a broad overview of the history of the facility.

 

Residents also sought assurances that Plum Island would not be the permanent home of the new level-4 NBAF, and in that, too, they were disappointed.

Plum Island is one of six sites on the DHS “short list” as a possible home for the new facility. That news took local residents by surprise last year because DHS had announced in 2005 its intention to shut down the facility altogether. One man in the audience confronted the panel about the apparent change of heart, but panel members did not acknowledge the agency’s previously articulated position.

 

“Well, it’s on your own Web site,” countered the resident.

Plum Island is one of six possible sites for the new NBAF in part because it is already home to the animal disease research center. While its island location has advantages, including isolation from mainland livestock, it also has disadvantages, such as difficulty and expense of access, and the high cost of housing on the North Fork — the reason why many Plum Island scientists now live in Connecticut, and ride the ferry to work on the island from Old Saybrook rather than Orient Point.

The panel, consisting of three DHS officials, including Plum Island director Larry Barnett, in addition to a USDA veterinarian who has worked at the site for 20 years, Bill White, sought to reassure residents of the safety and security of both the current facility and the new one, should it be built there. Most residents in the hearing room weren’t buying it, expressing fears about air emissions from the lab, potential terrorist attacks, damage from a major hurricane, and the inability of North Fork residents to evacuate in case of an emergency.

“There’s no way for anyone here to escape,” Orient resident Freddie Wachsberger said.

In response to Ms. Domenici’s question about monitoring of emissions from the facility’s incinerator, which burns animal carcasses, Mr. Barnett said, “All environmental permits are through the state.” The emissions are monitored on site “regularly,” he said, but could not provide specifics. The state tests emissions annually, Mr. Barnett said.

“You can get a pollen count every day,” Ms. Domenici replied. “Can’t you set up a monitoring site in Orient?”

In addition to studying foot-and-mouth disease in livestock, Plum Island’s long-standing mission, the new NBAF, wherever it is eventually sited, will research other diseases. DHS offers a list of eight diseases that are slated for research at the NBAF “at the present time,” Mr. Johnson said. They are foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, African swine fever, Rift Valley fever, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, Japanese encephalitis virus, Nipah virus and Hendra virus. Other pathogens could be added to the list in the future, he acknowledged, but they would not include Ebola or anthrax, he said. Those diseases are researched by the CDC at its BSL-4 facility in Atlanta.

The other five sites under consideration for the NBAF are in Athens, Ga., Manhattan, Kan., Flora, Miss., Butner, N.C., and San Antonio, Tex. DHS has hosted question-and-answer sessions in Butner and Athens, in addition to Southold, though an agency spokesman said DHS sought to hold similar sessions in the other communities as well.

The agency will issue its draft environmental impact statement assessing each site by the end of May, Mr. Johnson said. It will hold a public hearing on the DEIS within about a month after it is issued, he said. The agency expects to issue the final environmental impact statement this fall. Public comment will be factored into the decision, Mr. Johnson said.

 

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