Blumenthal to fight Plum Island upgrade

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
Aug. 16, 2008

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal plans to formally oppose a possible upgrade of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center that could include work with dangerous animal and human pathogens.

Blumenthal said his office will file comments next week with the federal Department of Homeland Security, which operates the center and would build the new $450 million facility, saying that the new National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility should not be located on Plum Island.

The island is one of six sites in contention to be the location of the new facility.

“We have very serious concerns about the potentially huge environmental impact in an area that is densely populated, heavily used for recreational purposes as well as commercial navigation, and possibly a very vulnerable terrorist target,” Blumenthal said. “Our concerns are about leaks from the facility if it goes to a threat level that involves animal diseases transmitted from animal to humans that have no known cures or vaccines.”

Blumenthal is calling on Connecticut and New York officials to work together against the facility, as they did in opposing Broadwater Energy’s proposed liquefied natural gas facility. Plum Island, which is in New York waters, lies in Long Island Sound about 10 miles off the Connecticut shoreline and just off Orient Point on the north fork of Long Island.

“We’re going to seek to coordinate with New York because obviously they have a stake in this as much as we do,” he said, adding that his staff has had some preliminary discussions with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office.

Plum Island is the location of the country’s only major facility for studying contagious animal pathogens like foot and mouth disease. The 50-year-old center is “nearing the end of its life cycle,” according to Homeland Security, and the department is planning to replace it with the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility that may or may not be on Plum Island.

As part of the upgrade, the government plans to add the capacity for Biolevel Safety 4 research, which would allow scientists to study diseases that can transfer from animals to humans. Right now, Plum Island handles only Biolevel 3 diseases, those that affect animals.

Level 4 diseases include “dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease,” according to the department.

Five locations on the U.S. mainland are also in the running to be the site of the new facility, which would not be operational until 2015. They are Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Flora, Miss.; Butner, N.C., and San Antonio, Texas. DHS is planning to make a final decision on the location by the end of this year.

Some Connecticut residents became concerned this week after an informational session in Old Saybrook. Nancy and James Czarzasty of Old Saybrook contacted Gov. M. Jodi Rell and U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., asking for their input on the project.

In some states being considered for the facility, officials like Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius have expressed support for the project, according to local news reports. Each of the sites in contention applied to build the facility.

However, some federal lawmakers have raised concerns about the selection of the Mississippi site as a finalist, citing government scientist reports that ranked it almost at the bottom of a list of more than a dozen candidates, according to the Associate Press. That has led to charges that Homeland Security has politicized the process.

Department Spokesman Russ Knocke said that no decisions have been made on the location of the new facility or “whether to build one at all.”

“It’s not been ruled out, but Plum at present is really not capable of making that transition to a Level 4,” Knocke said.

The department recently released draft environmental impact statements for each of the locations, which residents can submit comments on until Aug. 25. Blumenthal’s comments will be a formal response to the statement for the Plum Island location.

Blumenthal said that, if necessary, he will file a lawsuit to block the new facility.

“The decision-making process seems very much in flux, so we’re hopeful that our comments will have an impact,” he said. “I am always open to new information or facts but the present plans for research … seem better located elsewhere.”

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