AR-News: (U.S.) Plum Island animal research facility probe
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Wed Oct 22 18:55:18 EDT 2003
ANIMAL LAB INQUIRY
Problems persist at biocontainment research facility on Plum Island
The Scientist, John Dudley Miller, October 22, 2003
Confirming continuing congressional allegations, a General Accounting Office
(GAO) report says that until June of this year, security at the nation's top
laboratory for deadly animal diseases was dangerously lax. Although many
improvements have since been made, the lab's acting director admits that
security is still not as tight as it needs to be.
"This report is not just a wake-up call; it's a blaring alarm," said Rep.
Tim Bishop (D-NY), a persistent critic whose district includes the Plum
Island Animal Disease Center.
The island facility, just northeast of Long Island, NY, and 12 miles
southeast of New London, Conn., was operated by the US Department of
Agriculture (USDA) until June 2003, when the new Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) took it over. The GAO investigation began in November 2002
and continued until September 19, 2003, when the report was completed.
In a late August 2003 letter included in the report, DHS's undersecretary
for science and technology, Charles McQueary, wrote that Plum Island "still
has fundamental problems that leave the facility vulnerable to security
"It is alarming to me that USDA was not moving effectively to address many
of the security shortfalls at Plum Island," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa),
who requested the inquiry by Congress' investigatory arm, the GAO.
The probe revealed that USDA officials once allowed eight foreign scientists
free rein in the biocontainment area where diseases are stored, even though
they had never undergone mandatory federal background checks. Foreign
students attending classes at the facility never underwent such checks
either. Because guards carried unauthorized firearms, local police
departments refused to agree to provide assistance during potential
Physical security was also inadequate, said the report, which Harkin
released Monday (October 20) after a 30-day review period. Electronic locks
on doors and on refrigerators containing disease samples did not work
correctly. Some outdoor security cameras looked out blindly over areas too
dark to see anything at night because USDA had never installed adequate
DHS spokesperson Michelle Petrovich said Tuesday (October 21) that her
department is "more than half-way through" implementing the report's
recommendations. The Plum Island center's Acting Director Marc Hollander
added, "By December 31 of this year, we're going to have finished our
modifications to the facility, which are going to address an awful lot of
the [report's] concerns..." Hollander said that he is planning a 5-year
program of comprehensive improvements.
The soon-to-be-finished modifications include major physical upgrades that
USDA ordered in June 2002 after contracting with national security experts
at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to redesign its security
system. Sandia advised USDA officials not to undertake a broad, sweeping
overhaul, because terrorists could obtain dangerous pathogens more easily
from other sources.
But GAO disagreed. "The risk that an adversary might try to steal pathogens
is, in our opinion, higher than USDA believed it to be in 2001
the [labor] strike that occurred [at Plum Island] in August 2002 and the
hostility surrounding it." One former employee has been convicted of
tampering with the island's fresh-water system as he walked off the job to
Partly as a result of the labor strike, DHS has decided to pick a new
contractor by January 1 to oversee the island's operation. Bishop's Press
Secretary Jon Schneider said this move was perhaps the most important one so
far and that DHS has made significant improvements already, albeit not as
fast as the congressman would like to see.
Links for this article
Combating terrorism: Actions needed to improve security at Plum Island
Animal Disease Center, General Accounting Office report, September 19, 2003.
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