Plum will not be picked

By Denise Civiletti

Plum Island has been passed over as the site for the new biosafety level four research laboratory in the final environmental impact statement expected to be released on tomorrow (Dec. 5) by the Department of Homeland Security.

The federal agency is recommending a site in Manhattan, Kansas for the new $450 million lab, the Associated Press reported today.

The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility being developed by DHS under a Jan. 2004 directive of President George Bush would be equipped to handle and study exotic pathogens that could be transmitted from animals to humans. It is supposed to replace the existing research laboratory on Plum Island, a biosafety level three lab that has been studying animal diseases, principally hoof and mouth disease, for more than half a century.

DHS, which took over responsibility for Plum Island from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2003, had announced it intended to shut down operations there once the NBAF was built elsewhere. But in August 2007, DHS revealed that Plum Island had been added to the “short list” of six potential sites for the NBAF because a federal research lab was already operating on the site.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said tonight he has not yet seen the FEIS, but understood it recommended the selection of the Kansas site. Mr. Bishop was an early and vocal opponent of Plum Island as the site for the new lab, a possibility widely opposed by North Fork residents. He favors upgrading and maintaining the existing lab facility there, however.

Mr. Bishop said in a telephone interview he is not convinced the NBAF will be built anywhere under the Obama administration.

“My understanding is that the NBAF is the passion of one senior official at DHS,” Mr. Bishop said. “He goes away on January 19.”

The recent economic collapse means the new administration will be taking a hard, close look at the large expense of building the new lab. “It's a $450 million facility. The country has gotten by reasonably well thus far without it,” Mr. Bishop said. “It's important to recognize here that the construction of NBAF is a priority of the Bush administration. We don't know if its a priority of the Obama administration,” he said. If the NBAF is abandoned, the federal government may just decide to upgrade the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, he said.

“It's just not possible to make any informed prediction of what will happen to Plum Island at this time,” Mr. Bishop said.

Plum Island employs about 350 people, who commute to the 840-acre island 1.5 miles off the tip of Orient Point by ferry from Long Island and Connecticut. It has been in operation since 1954.