Garden City, N.Y. — A New York congressman wants to take the “For Sale” sign off Plum Island.
In a letter this week, Rep. Timothy Bishop argues it is ludicrous for the federal government to be spending as much as $1 billion to construct a new laboratory in Manhattan, Kan., to study animal diseases that could devastate the country’s livestock industry when a “perfectly good” facility already exists off the tip of eastern Long Island.
The Long Island Democrat, who previously has criticized the Department of Homeland Security’s relocation plan, notes in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget that the National Academy of Sciences is again studying the suitability of placing a new lab in the so-called Beef Belt. He adds that plans to sell the New York island — made famous in a 1997 Nelson DeMille best-selling book of the same name, and its mention as a possible home for Hannibal Lecter in the film “Silence of the Lambs” — to finance the move to Kansas are more than 18 months behind schedule.
“Let’s just say this was a bad idea and move on,” Bishop told The Associated Press.
Kansas officials, who recently authorized $45.4 million in bonds for the next phase of construction on the $650 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, counter that there is no reason to turn back.
“Plum Island is not the long-term solution that our country needs to protect our food supply,” Gov. Sam Brownback said. “Building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is integral not only to the security of our nation’s food supply but also to our capacity to respond to acts of terror directed against the American people.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, took responsibility for the research laboratory at Plum Island in 2003. Scientists there study highly dangerous and contagious pathogens that could wipe out the nation’s cattle or hog populations if they were released. The site was chosen in the 1950s because it was located off the mainland of the United States.
Homeland Security officials determined several years ago that the aging facility may not be suitable for continued research and studied several sites around the country, settling on Manhattan, Kan. That lab is not supposed to open until at least 2018, so DHS officials in the interim have spent $35 million on security and other enhancements at Plum Island in recent years.
Although Plum Island was considered as a possible site for the new lab, officials ruled it out after Bishop and others opposed plans to upgrade the laboratory to a Bioscience Level-4 facility, which means it could also study diseases dangerous to humans. The Kansas site will be a Level-4 facility, while Plum Island, which is not expected to close until at least 2018, remains at Level-3.
“Simply upgrading the outdated Cold War-era Plum Island Animal Disease Center is not an option for many reasons, among them that the local community, led by Rep. Bishop, sought and received a commitment from DHS in 2003 not to build a BSL-4 lab on Plum Island,” said Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan. “His latest argument that he is opposed to building NBAF in order to save money is a faulty, disturbing, and transparent argument.”
Bishop counters there are existing Level-4 facilities at Fort Detrick, Md., and elsewhere, that could handle the research on human diseases envisioned for Kansas. He argues that in hard economic times, moving research to Kansas is unnecessary.
“One of the things I’ve been elected to do is protect the needs and interests of my own district and there are 200 jobs at this facility,” Bishop said. “I would also suggest that Kansas’ interest is no more enlightened than my interest. If they’re going to accuse me of playing parochial politics, I could easily level the same accusation against them. From a fiscal point of view, given the difficulty we had, this is a facility we don’t need.
“So am I trying to protect local jobs? You’re damn right I am. But do I also believe there are significant, larger national interests at play here, absolutely.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a member of the appropriations and agriculture committees, also opposes the move to Kansas. The appropriations committee is holding up $50 million in funding for the Kansas laboratory in next year’s budget pending the outcome of a National Academy of Science study on the feasibility of placing the lab in the nation’s heartland. A previous study identified a 70 percent chance that a release of foot-and-mouth disease could occur at the new facility during its projected 50-year lifespan. Damages to the livestock industry could total as much as $50 billion if a release were to occur, officials have said.
The academy is again studying the feasibility of placing the lab in Kansas; a report is due next summer.
Meanwhile, the General Services Administration had originally promised a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed sale of Plum Island in the summer of 2010, with public hearings to follow. The report was delayed in part because officials were obtaining additional information on the 840-acre pork-chop shaped island from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. The draft is now expected in January or February.
Bishop also derides notions that any sale of Plum Island will offset the costs of moving to Kansas. One eastern Long Island real estate expert has estimated that the island could fetch as much as $50 million, far less than the estimated $650 million for the new laboratory.
“Sheer fantasy,” Bishop said of the idea that the Plum Island sale would cover the cost of the new lab. He adds that the estimates don’t include the cost of possible environmental remediation at the island, where secret Cold War-era chemical warfare testing is believed to have taken place. “You would have to do at least $80 million to $100 million worth of environmental cleanup, so there’s no way the numbers add up at all,” Bishop said.