Animal Disease Lab Plans Controversial Relocation

The Department of Homeland Security is considering relocating the nation's main animal disease lab. Now located on an isolated island off New York, the lab could be moved to North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, or Kansas. Local residents, farmers and ranchers are worried, while local officials anticipate the money and prestige the lab might bring.

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. There are few things more scary to farmers than the threat of foot and mouth disease. If that devastating animal virus ever spread through the United States, it could force farmers to slaughter millions of pigs, cows, and other livestock.

Foot and mouth is considered so hazardous and so contagious that for decades, the only laboratory in the country to study it was located on an isolated island off the New York coast. Now, the government is thinking of moving that lab to the mainland. NPR's Adam Hochberg traveled to Plum Island, New York to find out why.

ADAM HOCHBERG: For more than 50 years, a small sliver of land in Long Island Sound has been America's first layer of defense against a veterinary catastrophe. It's here in the secluded laboratories of Plum Island that scientists study some of the world's most dangerous animal pathogens, germs so infectious that the government takes extreme measures to make sure what's studied on Plum Island stays on Plum Island.

Unidentified Woman #1: The U.S. department of Homeland Security and Field Support Service and Transportation Department welcome you to Plum Island.

HOCHBERG: The Island's 300 employees, as well as its occasional visitors come and go on heavily guarded ferry boats, and anybody who steps inside the animal labs has to follow a strict hygiene regimen the minute they walk out. They're required to shower, shampoo their hair, and clean under their fingernails. Director Larry Barrett says there's even a rule that they clear their throats and spit.

Dr. LARRY BARRETT (Director, Plum Island Animal Disease Center): The concern there is that, if you're with an animal that is breathing foot and mouth disease, that you could carry it in your nasal cavities and your throat. And so when you come out, it's expected that you also expectorate and clear your throat and blow your nose.

HOCHBERG: Barrett says those rules exist for the same reason the government put this lab on an island in the first place, because foot and mouth and the other viruses studied here are among the most contagious known to man. Though they don't cause illness in human, they theoretically could hitch a ride off the island in a person's throat or on skin or clothes. From there, Barrett says they could infect livestock on the mainland and cause a national crisis.

Dr. BARRETT: If you have an animal that's infected with foot and mouth disease, they quarantine and restrict travel and everything in that area while they're going in and trying to eradicate the disease because it is so contagious. And it could be a 20-billion-dollar impact on our society if you have an outbreak in this country.

Unidentified Woman #2: This is what they call a magnetic particle processor.

HOCHBERG: Since 1954, the scientists in these labs have been studying foot and mouth disease and working on vaccines and other measures to prevent it. While there have been outbreaks in Great Britain and elsewhere during that time, the U.S. has remained disease free.

But federal officials say Plum Island is becoming obsolete. They say its labs are small and ill-equipped to deal with new, more dangerous pathogens, while the remote location makes it expensive to operate.

The Department of Homeland Security is considering building a replacement, this time not on an island, but on the U.S. mainland. The agency's Jamie Johnson says, unlike when Plum Island was built, an up-to-date lab doesn't need to be surrounded by water to be safe.

Mr. JAMIE JOHNSON (Director, Office of National Laboratories, Department of Homeland Security): Modern bio containment technology, it's proven. It works. We plan to take advantage of the full suite of bio containment technologies. All the security protocol, they go with that to make sure this is the safest facility around.

HOCHBERG: Homeland Security is considering five sites for what it's calling the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. They're in Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas. The new lab would study foot and mouth and the other animal diseases currently at Plum Island, plus additional pathogens that are contagious in both animals and humans.

Political leaders in each of the five states are competing to attract the 450-million-dollar project and the hundreds of jobs it would bring. Tom Thornton of the Kansas Bioscience Authority says it belongs there because of the state's strong agricultural heritage.

Mr. THOMAS THORNTON (President, Kansas Bioscience Authority): We should, by all rights, be the best place to put this large federal lab. And on the merits, it ought to be here.

HOCHBERG: While Athens, Georgia Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge says the lab is a natural fit for his college town.

Mr. DOC ELDRIDGE (President, Athens Area Chamber of Commerce): We think that this is who we are. This is where the site needs to be.

HOCHBERG: One Texas leader refers to the facility as the next great federal laboratory. Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran says it would put his state on the cutting edge of research. And the president of the University of North Carolina says he couldn't be more excited his state's a finalist. But all that enthusiasm isn't shared by some people who live close to the proposed sites.

Unidentified Children: (Singing) Won't you keep the labs offshore, Hallelujah. Don't bring death to our front door, Hallelujah.

HOCHBERG: These children were part of a protest in North Carolina, where opponents worry about the lab's potential danger and don't trust Homeland Security to run it safely. They know Plum Island has had accidents in the past. The most significant in 1978, when the foot and mouth virus somehow infected livestock in a holding pen. That release was confined to the island.

But to opponents, it's an example of why the lab should remain offshore. At a question and answer session in Creedmoor, North Carolina, local resident Susan Smith (ph) had just one question for federal officials.

Ms. SUSAN SMITH (North Carolina Resident): What do we have to do to make you go away?

(Soundbite of cheering)

HOCHBERG: Similar opposition has cropped up around some of the other sites, and several farm groups are skeptical of the plan, as well, fearing a repeat of Britain's 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, which led to the slaughter of six million animals. In Congress, Michigan Democrat John Dingle chairs a House committee studying the biolab project. And he says he's baffled by plans to move the facility off Plum Island.

Representative JOHN DINGLE (Democrat, Michigan): The chances of foot mouth disease getting loose from an island are significantly less than if you have if it in the middle of a major agricultural state full of cows and sheep and pigs, all subject to the risk of this kind of disease.

HOCHBERG: Federal officials say they haven't ruled out building the new lab here on Plum Island, though they say that likely would be the most expensive option. And people who work on the island say critics are overstating the facility's risks. Luis Rodriguez is a researcher for the agriculture department, which works side by side with Homeland Security in Plum Island's labs.

Mr. LUIS RODRIGUEZ (Research Leader, Animal Disease Center): There is a lot of things that have been written about Plum Island, and maybe the U.S.D.A. was not the best in PR. However, with the biosafety measures that we currently have, I would not hesitate to live next door to a laboratory like this.

HOCHBERG: Homeland Security hopes to announce a location for the lab by the end of the year, and agency officials have been clear they have no intention of forcing the facility on a community that doesn't want it. They say they remain optimistic they'll be able to persuade neighbors, farmers, and skeptical members of Congress that the world's most dangerous diseases can safely be studied onshore. Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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