Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Letter From The Editor: Plum Island

I will admit I do have a fascination with Plum Island.

When I learned last week that there was a criminal investigation open over locating a “new Plum Island” in Manhattan, Kansas, I had to give the story some attention.  As far as I can tell, it has gotten precious little ink outside of Kansas.

The real Plum Island — located off the coasts of Long Island, NY and Connecticut — is where dangerous animal pathogens have been kept since the early days of the Cold War.  To say Plum Island has “a history” is hardly enough.  It is America’s only address for foot and mouth disease.

A prominent former Nazi, strange warm-blooded animals, and the mysterious “Lab 257” all come up in any Plum Island history. USDA ran Plum Island until Homeland Security took over in 2003.  

As soon as the new National Agro and Bio-Defense Facility is built in Manhattan, Plum Island will be closed down.  Just as construction is about to begin, out popped the news of the criminal investigation that may involve the role of a state of Kansas entity called the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

No details of the criminal investigation are known, but the Kansas Legislature is taking all of this seriously. Late in the week, it transferred the $105 million Kansas bond authority for the NABF to the state Department of Administration under Gov. Sam Brownback, taking it away from KBA.

A legislative leader said they stripped KBA of any role with the bonds to “quell any potential problems at the federal level.”  

Kansas does not want the federal government worrying about its local partner.

In reviewing the record on how Kansas won this Bio-Security Level 4 laboratory, which is coming to Manhattan along with an estimated 50 dangerous and deadly animal pathogens, one thing becomes clear. They really, really wanted it.

Bio Level 4 is as good as it gets when comes to secured labs. Agent Stanley Goodspeed works in one during the opening few minutes of the movie “The Rock.”  They are built to keep bad stuff from getting out.

The half dozen other locations all produced much more mixed local support for the $600 million project that comes with spinoffs that could reach as high as $3 billion.

KBA certainly promoted Manhattan aggressively, so do did numerous other organizations and literally every local, state, and federal official involved. Many a city would become weak-kneed over a Bio Level 4 laboratory, but Manhattan already has a Level 3 lab and expressed the “bring it on” attitude.

They accurately point out that Bo Level 4 facilities are located in many an urban area around the country, including those Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) labs in Atlanta where deadly human pathogens are parked.

Given the positive climate in Kansas for building the NABF, it is doubtful the Johnson County District Attorney is on one of those missions to make politics illegal. In other words, the best bet is the criminal investigation is about something specific to KBA.

Outside auditors and concerns about oversight of KBA had cropped up before news came out about the criminal investigation.  Established in 2004, KBA was designated to invest $581 million in bioscience start-ups and research over a 15-year period.

Kansas officials are clearly putting their priority on keeping funding flowing to get the NABF built by 2018.   Then and only then will it be possible for Plum Island’s role in mysterious animal research to truly be history.  Then all of Plum Island’s goodies will be moved to Kansas.

© Food Safety News