January 25, 2009
Scientific Research
What’s Ahead for Plum Island?
ABOUT 50 years ago, the United States Department of Agriculture took control of Plum Island, already a federal property, to study dangerous animal diseases that might harm the national food supply. A sense of mystery and danger in nearby communities emerged as employees took a special ferry to the 840-acre island and took showers to protect themselves before and after work.

But that sense of living near danger will begin to fade in about five years.

The Department of Homeland Security announced this month that it would move the research performed at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to Manhattan, Kan. More dangerous research will be done there, on the Kansas State University campus.

“It’s pretty much beginning to reach the end of its life cycle,” John S. Verrico, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, said of the Plum Island lab.

Mr. Verrico said that as new livestock diseases emerge, a larger and more secure place for research is needed. “Those cannot be studied in a laboratory like Plum Island,” he said. “Plum Island really allows us to only study one disease at a time.”

Homeland Security took over Plum Island in 2003 and two years later announced that it would build a new biological and agricultural defense center called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or N.B.A.F.

At the time of that announcement, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a Democrat who was confirmed last week as secretary of state under President Obama, and Representative Timothy H. Bishop, Democrat of Southampton, said the laboratory should remain open at the current security level — Level 3. Mr. Bishop still has hope that the closing may be put off.

The government said it needed a Level 4 laboratory, the highest security designation, enabling it to handle diseases fatal to animals and humans for which there is no known cure.

Right now, the Plum Island laboratory studies foreign animal diseases, like foot-and-mouth disease, that are not lethal to humans. But it can handle anthrax, which is deadly to humans.

In December, the government identified Kansas State as the preferred location from among six sites, including Plum Island.

The closing of Plum Island will mean about 200 lost science and support jobs. But “it’s still quite a ways out there,” said Jamie Johnson, the director of national labs for the Science and Technology Directorate of the Homeland Security Department.

That is because construction of the Kansas laboratory will not begin until early 2010 and will take about four years to complete, according to the Homeland Security Department. Meanwhile, research will continue on Plum Island. In 2014, a three-year transition will begin to move research to the new laboratory.

In 2017 or early 2018, the Plum Island laboratory will close and the government will consider selling the island, Mr. Johnson said. Plum Island is on the northern edge of Gardiners Bay, about one and a half miles from the hamlet of Orient Point.

“I do not believe that it is a done deal,” Mr. Bishop said of that chronology.

He called the lab construction “a priority of the Bush administration.”

“We do not know if it’s going to be a priority for the Obama administration,” Mr. Bishop said.

He said Congress had not yet appropriated any money for the new laboratory.

But Mr. Johnson, of Homeland Security, said $46 million in federal money was allocated for the laboratory in the 2008 fiscal year and $35 million was allocated in the 2009 fiscal year. He also said he was confident that Congress would pay for it. The proposal calls for $451 million for the laboratory, but Mr. Johnson said additional costs would bring the total to about $630 million.

Mr. Bishop said he had sent a letter about Plum Island’s future to Janet Napolitano, who was confirmed last week as secretary of homeland security.

That letter has not been made public, but in December Mr. Bishop argued that Plum Island should remain a Level 3 laboratory and that more dangerous research should be conducted at facilities that can handle it, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

The new laboratory in Kansas will first focus on Level 3-security research like classical swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease, according to the Homeland Security Department. Later, research conducted under Level 4 security would focus on Hendra and Nipah viruses, which have been linked to respiratory and neurological diseases.

The federal government has had a long presence on Plum Island. It bought 130 acres on the west end in 1897 to build Fort Terry, which was a defense position during the Spanish-American War. Guns were installed there to repel enemy warships, and during World War II, soldiers there kept watch for German U-boats and planes.

The fort was later closed and reopened by the Army Chemical Corps and the Department of Agriculture in 1952 for animal disease research. In 1954, the Department of Agriculture took over the entire island to build the Plum Island Animal Disease Laboratory. The laboratory became a part of the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Access to the island is restricted.

Plum Island has had safety incidents that worried East End residents. In 1991, Hurricane Bob knocked out power on the island for several hours, disabling air pressure systems that ensured that viruses were contained. And in 1978, a foot-and-mouth outbreak occurred among animals in pens outside the laboratory.

As the countdown begins to the end of the Plum Island laboratory, some ideas for its use have emerged.

If the disease lab closes, Mr. Bishop said, he would like to see Plum Island turned into a government-run laboratory dedicated to the study of alternative fuels and renewable energy.

Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Suffolk County executive, Steve Levy, said officials envisioned a wind farm, but had not fully studied the idea yet.

Enzo Morabito, the director of real estate development for Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Bridgehampton, which deals exclusively in luxury property, said a two-acre lot of bare waterfront property on the south side of Plum Island would likely go for about $2 million.

He also said the entire island would be suitable for a golf course and luxury homes.

“That’s what I would do with it,” Mr. Morabito said. “That’s the highest and best use.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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