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Plum Site

“We continue to stand firmly opposed to placing a BSL-4 facility on Plum Island due to its close proximity to major metropolitan areas.”

U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, regarding the possible expansion of anti-bio-terror research off Long Island.

[Plum Island Animal Disease Center, 107 miles from New York City]




One year ago, San Antonio’s chances of landing Homeland Security’s $500-million golden goose of germ research — the National Bio- & Agro-Defense Facility — were good. Three of the eighteen sites being considered were in Alamo City.

We had Brooks City-Base, Texas Research Park, and the nation’s only privately run BSL-4 capable lab in the country at Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research.

Just up the road, Texas A&M was dropped after embarrassing and potentially dangerous lab mishaps. An escaped baboon running for dear life from the heavily primatized Southwest Foundation probably didn’t increase SFBR’s rating with the Feds, either. Homeland is considering a variety of factors in the site selection process, including public support, access to existing infrastructure, ability to attract qualified researchers, and security.

When the shortlist was announced last summer, the odds on San Antonio remained statistically the same at one-in-six, but a strongly supportive and/or silent public played to the boosters’ advantage. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent by the research community to bring N-BAF to San Antonio.

However, since the U.S. General Accounting Office required Der Homeland to quantify the risk of outbreak from the center tasked with studying some of the most deadly diseases known, it has become apparent that expanding the existing home for zoonotic diseases, those that can be passed from human to animal and back again, may be the best option after all. (GAO doubts research lab can be moved safely.)

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the tip of Long Island was not under consideration when Homeland first began the site selection process but was added along the way as protests in various communities took root.

Plum Island was originally sited where it is in the 1950s to keep risky research into foot-and-mouth disease off of the U.S. mainland. However, since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. has seen a surge in bio-defense research across the country (and a lack of oversight and a rash of security breaches) that has made siting a new facility closer to current research centers more desirable.

Consider that in 46 states there are now 1,356 BSL-3 labs monitored by the CDC and 15 BSL-4 labs. The total number of BSL-3 labs (those outside CDC range) is unknown.

Since 2003, there have been more than 100 accidents and cases of missing deadly germ shipments.

A GAO investigation found no single agency is tracking the bio-safety labs and oversight is “fragmented,” relying heavily on self-reporting.
In its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Homeland officials report that a Rift Valley Fever Working Group determined that an RVF outbreak under worst-case scenario would not be identified until day 27, “by which time the number of infected animals and humans have tripled.” Such an event would cost the U.S. economy more than $50 billion and untold lives. The cost of a foot-and-mouth outbreak would also run into the billions.

Of course, outbreaks cost the same whether they are intentionally or accidentally triggered.

So it would seem that barring any major problems with the Plum site, security would rule the day and the island would keep on playing host for this most sensative of research. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement  repeatedly references the benefit of the island location.

•    “Plum Island’s relative isolation from the surrounding environment, including its distance to livestock areas of any consequence and its prevailing seaward winds, would render that location a lower risk to the regional and national agricultural economy than the mainland sites

•    “The Plum Island site is near the New York City metropolitan area, but its location on an island reduces the likelihood of viral transmission to people or animals …

•    “The generally colder climate of Plum Island compared to the other alternative sites could reduce the ability of mosquitoes … or their offspring to survive and maintain the virus over time. Hence, from a human health economic perspective, Plum Island could pose a smaller threat compared to the other alternative sites.

•    “The other alternative sites are relatively similar in economic health risks, although establishment of infected mosquitoes in one of the southeastern sites could lead to a more rapid dispersal of the disease to larger human populations such as in the Atlanta or San Antonio areas and ultimately lead to a permanent reservoir of virus

•    “Of the proposed location sites, only Plum Island has no livestock populations in the vicinity of the proposed site. The other five locations have livestock population densities either between 10 and 20 livestock per kilometer or between 20 and 30 livestock per kilometer …

•    “From an agricultural economic perspective, the mainland sites are not significantly different from each other in terms of risk to the local economy … Many of the alternative sites are located relatively close to human populations; for example, Athens is only about 60 miles from Atlanta, Georgia, which has a metropolitan population exceeding 5 million people. Similarly, the Texas site is located on the outskirts of the City of San Antonio, which in 2007 had a population approaching 2.6 million.”

So, all things being equal, and the naturally enhanced security of off-East-Coast research, why the push to bring the germ lab onshore? Well, all things are not equal.

The Plum Island site would cost an estimated $250 million more than any of the onshore alternatives. The $500-million project quickly becomes a $750-million project when it meets island real estate.

Who’s game for a small wager that USHS gambles to save a quarter-billion in short-term savings for the heightened risk of losing multiple billions in lives and greenbacks down the road?

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{UPDATE: Just found this report to Congress that may shed some light on plans to sell the existing Plum Island site to help pay for a less-safe site on the U.S. mainland. USHS has had a hard time cobbling together the needed hundreds of millions for N-BAF... Condo over former disease lab just not that appealing.}

Selling Plum Island
One option raised by DHS has been to sell Plum Island and use the profit from such a sale to offset the construction costs of the NBAF, the decontamination and remediation costs for the island, and the demolition costs for the PIADC. Under this proposal, DHS would sell Plum Island in FY2009 or FY2010, arrange with the purchaser to allow operations to continue until the NBAF construction was finished, and transfer Plum Island to the purchaser only after clean up of the island had been completed.71 Most sales of surplus property are handled by the General Services Administration and any funds received redirected into the Treasury.

The DHS has proposed to add statutory language to the FY2009 DHS appropriations act providing express authority to liquidate the Plum Island assets and retain the proceeds of the sale. The proposed language indicates that these funds could be used to offset costs associated with construction of the NBAF; however, the proposed language would also allow the DHS Secretary to use the net proceeds of the Plum Island sale for “other real property capital asset needs.”73 Under this proposed language, the net proceeds from the sale of Plum Island would be retained by DHS until fully spent rather than reverting to the Treasury at a future date.

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[You'll find the text of this blog reduced and rearranged while the imagry is amped up for this week's edition of Last Words.]

Posted by Greg Harman on 7/1/2008
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