Plum Island: Sitting Duck

Posted on 29 June 2012

By Karl Grossman

The National Research Council issued a report this month identifying “a number of deficiencies” in an “updated risk assessment” done by the federal government for the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) it wants to build in Kansas to replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center just off Long Island.

Congressman Tim Bishop, who has been challenging the project, issued a statement praising the report because “it bolsters” his view “that building NBAF in America’s agricultural heartland…is unacceptably risky.” He cited “the potentially devastating consequences of a release of the most virulent animal diseases in the heart of cattle country.” The Southampton Democrat also cited, as he has repeatedly, “the jobs of over 100 Long Islanders” threatened by the closure of the Plum Island center, and the NBAF’s $1 billion cost.

Randy Altschuler, a St. James Republican now in a second run to replace Mr. Bishop, although differing with him on most issues, on this agreed. He said in an interview last week that building the NBAF in Kansas to replace the Plum Island center “doesn’t make any sense.”

The National Research Council report, done by a variety of experts in veterinary medicine, engineering and other fields, said the “updated risk assessment” was an improvement over a 2010 “version.” But it still “underestimates the risk of an accidental pathogen release.” It said “the updated probabilities of release are based on overly optimistic and unsupported estimates of human-error rates” and “low estimates of infectious material available for release.”  Of great concern is the impact of a release on the many livestock, notably cattle, in the region. The malady on which most research on Plum Island is done, to be taken over by the NBAF, is foot-and-mouth disease which affects cattle.

But a release from Plum Island could impact on the many people in this region — and there have been releases at the Plum Island center. While Kansas is a center for cattle-raising in the United States, Plum Island is in close proximity to a national center of human population — a mile-and-a-half off the North Fork of Long Island with crowded Long Island and then New York City to its west, Connecticut, Rhode Island and then Boston to its north, .

Untrue is the claim — repeated this month by CBS News’ “Sunday Morning” which presented a segment on Plum Island — that there isn’t a link between diseases studied there and people. CBS reported that “the government says the germs stored on the island only affect animals.”

As noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its 2003 report about the danger of terrorism and the Plum Island center, a camel pox strain researched at it could be converted into “an agent as threatening as smallpox,” and the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus worked on could be “developed into a human biowarfare agent.” The GAO declared that there is a substantial risk that “an adversary might try to steal pathogens” from Plum Island and use them against people or animals in the U.S. Further, it said, the center “was not designed to be a highly secure facility.”

And it can never be. Plum Island sits exposed amid busy marine traffic lanes. The main Plum Island laboratory sits astride a beach.

Moreover, the Plum Island center has been on the target list of al Qaeda. In 2010, Aafia Siddiqui, dubbed “Lady al Qaeda,” was convicted in Manhattan of attempted murder. Among the documents in her possession when she was captured in Afghanistan in 2008 were hand-written notes about a “mass-casualty attack” and targets including: the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty—and the Plum Island center. Also found with Pakistan-born Dr. Siddiqui (who has a doctorate in neuroscience from MIT) were jars of poisonous chemicals and details on chemical, biological and radiological weapons. A relative of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, she was found guilty of trying to kill Americans who came to question her. In 2002, U.S. Army commandos and CIA agents found a dossier on the Plum Island center in a raid on the Afghanistan residence of nuclear physicist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, an associate of Osama bin Laden.

Plum Island is a sitting duck for terrorists. That’s a major reason why the Department of Homeland Security, which after 9/11 took over running the center from the Department of Agriculture, wants it replaced by the NBAF. But can’t the proposed NBAF be put in a highly-secure location that is not in a center of cattle or of people?

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