A strong reaction to Plum Island bio lab

Standing-room-only crowd attends meeting to oppose possibility of a bigger facility at Plum Island


Plum Island is about a mile and a half from Orient and clearly visible to the people who live there, unless the fog is heavy.

Little wonder, then, that the possibility of a new, more sophisticated National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility on the island drew a vocal, standing-room-only crowd of Southold residents mostly against the idea to a community meeting Tuesday night.

Federal officials hosted the meeting to get residents’ reaction to a proposal to build a $500-million facility to replace the half-century-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

Virtually no one in the audience supported the idea, and no local elected official has come out in favor of it.

Five other sites in the nation are being considered for the new center, which is expected to be in operation by 2013. No decision has been made on what will happen to the current facility when the new one opens.

For Southold residents, the paramount question concerned safety procedures at Plum Island. If a new center were built there, they asked, what would protect against the failure of systems designed to keep dangerous organisms from getting out?

“The basic issue is very simple. They are trying to put a bio-level four laboratory in an area with just one egress,” said Sandra Sinclair, of Orient, pointing out that only one two-lane road is available for people trying to leave the area. “They don’t seem to have a realistic plan [for evacuation].”

Unlike the current facility, the proposed Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would be classified a biosafety level 4 research facility, which uses the highest level of protections. The current center is classified as a biosafety level 3 lab.

There are four BSL-4 labs now in the United States. Facilities with that designation investigate micro-organisms that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease and for which there is no known vaccine or therapy.

BSL-3 labs research micro-organisms that can cause significant damage to livestock and plants. While those micro-organisms may be a potential danger to humans, they are not considered harmful because of available protective measures.

The other five sites under consideration are in Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Flora, Miss.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio.

A draft environmental impact statement on the proposed new research facility, evaluating all six sites, is to be issued in the next couple of months. A final environmental impact statement is to be completed this fall.

A second public hearing will be scheduled after that report is issued. The final site selection will be made at least 30 days after the final environmental impact statement is released for public comment.

Staff writer Bill Bleyer contributed to this story.