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Farm groups clash over moving foot-and-mouth research

WASHINGTON (AP) — One of the nation’s oldest farm groups said Thursday a proposed foot-and-mouth disease research laboratory on the U.S. mainland, near livestock, could be an inviting target for terrorists. Commercial livestock representatives and the Bush administration insisted it would be safe to move an island lab to sites near animals.

Testimony at a House hearing showed deep divisions between farmers and ranchers over where to conduct research on the most infectious animal-only disease in the world.

Such work now is confined to the 840-acres Plum Island, N.Y., off the northeastern tip of Long Island. The administration has spent time and money to announce five finalist sites on the mainland for a new lab. A new facility on Plum Island to replace the current, outmoded lab remains a possibility.

All sides agreed that the wrong decision would bring an economic catastrophe if a new lab failed to contain the virus within the facility. An epidemic could ruin farmers and ranchers as well as related industries in feed, transportation, exports and retail.

Leroy Watson, legislative director of the National Grange, which was founded in 1867, raised the terrorism danger in testimony opposing moving the lab to the mainland.

The location of a new laboratory near livestock “would provide an inviting vicinity for the release of FMD (foot-and-mouth disease) by terrorist or criminal elements that would be looking to maximize not only the economic damage … but also the social and political confusion and fallout,” Watson said.

Domestic groups opposed to animal research also could target a new lab, he said.

Foot-and-mouth disease has been classified as a national security issue at least since 2003, when the Homeland Security Department took control of the island from the Agriculture Department, which had run it since the mid-1950s.

Gary Voogt, president-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said his group did not oppose the move.

“Plum Island is not the fortress some people may contend,” he said. “The island has long had a problem with wildlife swimming over from the mainland at low tide, and there have been numerous reports of how close boaters can get to the island without any warning or consequences.”

Like other witnesses who support a move, he said modern virus containment methods would make a new lab secure.

Jay Cohen, a homeland undersecretary, said, “I have every reason to believe that the assessments will show that, from a biosecurity and public safety perspective, siting the (new laboratory) on the U.S. mainland is a viable alternative.”

Rep. John Dingell, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, accused Cohen of withholding documents from the committee.

“It sounds rather arrogant to me,” said Dingell, D-Mich.

Cohen responded, “It sounds arrogant to me” that congressional investigators failed to “show me the courtesy to contact me” about the documents.

Dingell: “I will see to it we will lay subpoenas on you.”

Cohen: “I have nothing to hide here.”

The committee wants documents assessing the risk and benefits of locating a new lab on the mainland near animals, and the potential environment impact on each proposed location. Cohen said he would provide all the documents he has, but that a draft environmental statement would not be finished until mid-June.

While the disease does not sicken humans, an outbreak on the U.S. mainland — avoided since 1929 — could lead to slaughter of millions of animals, a halt in U.S. livestock movements, a ban on exports and severe losses in the production of meat and milk.

To avoid an epidemic, foot-and-mouth research has been confined since 1955 to Plum Island. The facility will be replaced by a National Bio-and-Agro-Defense Facility that also will study diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans.

The finalist sites are Flora, Miss.; Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Butner, N.C.; and San Antonio. One Homeland Security study found the numbers of livestock in the counties and surrounding areas of the finalists ranged from 542,507 in Kansas to 132,900 in Georgia.