Plum Island Security Alarming By Nancy Swett
A non-partisan, independent report issued on Monday by the United States General Accounting Office cited risky security problems at Plum Island. Senator Hillary Clinton said the report confirmed her worst fears, and Congressman Tim Bishop called it a “blaring alarm.”
“After reading the GAO report, I am grateful that our community has been safe despite serious errors in Plum Island’s security,” said Bishop in a press release. “This report is not just a wake-up call; it’s a blaring alarm.”
The GAO found that “the facility remains vulnerable to security breaches.” It found the island’s security arrangements to be “incomplete and limited.” Officials have assumed unnecessary risks by not adequately controlling access to areas with pathogens, and the possibilities of a terrorist attack on the island or of someone stealing pathogens isn’t considered in the island’s incident response plan.
Theft of computers from the island twice in the last year illustrated lapses in security on the island.
Questions about the security of Plum Island arose after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and when employees of the contractor hired to operate and maintain the Plum Island facilities went on strike in August 2002, the report said.
A whistleblower concerned about security lapses at the facility, who went public in June of this year, was fired the next day. He said he was fired for exposing security lapses. The Department of Homeland Security said he was fired for abandoning his post. Clinton and Bishop defended the whistleblower and said firing him sent the wrong message to employees about voicing concerns. The whistleblower was among those interviewed for the GAO report.
Also interviewed were officials from the DHS, United States Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI, and USDA’s Office of Inspector General; the security consultant to the lab Sandia National Laboratories; and government officials of localities near Plum Island.
Clinton said upheaval at the animal disease research facility on the island, including the union strike and the transfer of authority to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from the Department of Agriculture in June 2003, has led to a sluggish response time to security threats.
This summer DHS decided to discontinue its contract with North Fork Services in favor of a better suited company, and it has begun to implement changes in security on the island. The GAO report acknowledged that DHS and USDA agree with its recommendations and are proceeding with changes.
Still, Clinton said, there’s still a lot of work to be done. She and Bishop called for residents to join them in demanding better security on the island.
Foot-and-mouth disease is studied on the island. An outbreak of this most feared foreign animal disease in the United Kingdom in 2001 took eight months to eradicate and resulted in the slaughter of over four million animals and sustained losses of over $5 billion in the food and agricultural industries, as well as comparable losses in tourism.
Many other types of animal diseases are studied at Plum Island, including classical swine fever, rinderpest, and a variety of pox viruses. Some of the pathogens there are “zoonotic,” which means they can infect and possibly kill animals and humans. These include West Nile Virus, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, and vesicular stomatitis.
Bill Smith of Fish Unlimited wrote in a recent letter to the editor that he suspects that the West Nile epidemic, which originated on eastern Long Island, may be the result of a leak at the Plum Island laboratory.
While DHS is now formally responsible for security, USDA scientists and support staff continue to conduct the center’s research and diagnostic mission.
The report revealed that in July 2003, eight scientists from other countries were working in the biocontainment area without completed background investigations. “According to FBI officials, allowing anyone who does not have a completed background investigation access to the biocontainment area -- in particular, a scientist from another country --represents a significant security risk.”
Regarding the performance of the private management contractor, the GAO found that the performance of North Fork Services declined during the rating period in which the union strike occurred, but USDA rated their performance as superior. As a result of the strike, North Fork Services exceeded its estimated budget by about $511,000, or approximately 5%, for fiscal year 2002 and the first quarter of fiscal year 2003. USDA was aware of and approved the cost increases.
“LB&B’s inept management cost the government over half a million dollars, far more than the cost of Local 30’s demands,” said Bishop. “But instead of using these funds to retain experienced workers and improve security at Plum Island, it was used to finance union-busting at the expense of our community’s safety.”
Bishop and Clinton said they would continue to work with DHS and its exiting and new management contractors on island security. The GAO report recommended “DHS consult with USDA to correct physical security deficiencies; further limit access to pathogens; consult with other laboratories to identify ways to mitigate the inherent difficulty of securing pathogens; enhance response capabilities; reconsider risks and threats; and revise security and incident response plans as needed.”