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Plum Island: A Disaster Waiting To Happen

by Oread Daily Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2002 at 12:44 PM

Or has it already


Plum Island Animal Disease Center is a nasty place. Plum Island, a small area just off the coast of Long Island in New York, is one of the sites that the US military used in the 1940's and 50's for experimentation on germ warfare. Now officially classified as an animal disease experimentation center and run by the US Department of Agriculture, it tests animal viruses and illnesses such as anthrax and hoof in mouth disease. It is a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) facility.

For the second time in a week the Plum Island Animal Disease Center had to use backup generators over the weekend after encountering power problems. The first outage occurred on Dec. 15 when a mechanical problem with the authority's equipment caused the center to lose normal electrical service. The situation worsened when all three emergency generators failed. For three hours the place was without power of any kind. Plum Island maintenance workers have been on strike since Aug. 13, and their temporary replacements were unable to get emergency backup generators working for several hours during the outage. That incident was made public only when a replacement worker notified members of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s staff of the power failure. In an interview with the New York Times, the worker, who insisted on anonymity, said, "The reason I am coming forward is because what I have seen at the center is really out of hand and something needs to be done about it." Requests by The New York Times following the incident to visit the island were rejected.

The 3-hour power failure at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) renewed concerns about the safety of the high-security government laboratory while it is being run partly by replacement workers during the strike. The loss of power and failure of all 3 backup generators raised fears for the first time that the containment of infectious pathogens could have been seriously compromised at the laboratory. Ken Alibek, a former top Soviet germ warfare official now at George Mason University, said that although he knew of power failures at similar facilities, he did not know of a case in which the power and all the backup generators failed for this long. The Agriculture departments insists there was no danger of a leak. However, workers currently on the island, who insisted on anonymity, strikers familiar with the operation, government officials and outside scientists said the power failure could have compromised the safety of the center in several ways. People leaving the labs have to go through an elaborate cleaning process: stripping, passing back through the air lock, scrubbing their nails, spitting and blowing their noses to clear their respiratory systems, showering and shampooing their hair. All the rooms are separated by doors that are sealed with what look like bicycle inner tubes filled with air. The pressure in the seals is maintained by an air compressor, and if the power fails, those seals begin to deflate after 15 minutes. Government officials confirmed that this happened. A spokesperson for the facility said workers at the center sealed the doors with duct tape. In addition, the air pressure in the entire building is kept lower than the pressure outside; if there is a leak, air would enter, not escape. Under normal operation, air in the building is filtered before being vented. With the power out, the filtering would have stopped, but government experts "thought" that the overall pressure of the facility would "probably" have stayed low enough to have limited the risk of a leak.

Since the strike began, union members, workers on the island and government officials have expressed concern about whether the center can operate safely. The 76 union members who went on strike Aug. 13 are members of the International Union of Operating Engineers and are employed by L B & B Associates, a government subcontractor. At issue is management’s refusal to address serious shortfalls in the workers’ wages and medical benefits, changes in working conditions, and the compromise of new employees. The engineers had been working without a contract for eleven months, while their representatives have tried to reach a settlement with LB&B on a new collective bargaining agreement acknowledging the significant increases in health care costs. The "best and final" offer proposed by LB&B would leave about 95% of the workers paid below the federal wage determination standard for their title and level, with pension and welfare contributions far short of the Suffolk County area standards. Still, on November 30, workers voted to end the four-month walkout, accepting the final offer made by their employer,. But, when they arrived for work on the morning of December 9, the workers found government trucks blocking their way. Maryland-based LB&B had rejected the union's vote and was locking the workers out. The Agriculture Department claims it is not taking sides in the dispute. But union officials and a growing list of lawmakers are questioning that claim, citing the agency's decision to pay LB&B an additional $45,000 per week to cover extra costs since the strike began. The situation at the sensitive research center is "part and parcel of this administration's attitude as a whole," Clinton asserts, suggesting that "union busting" has been made "more important than good security on Plum Island."

Union officials are also dismayed by the increasingly cozy relationship between the USDA and LB&B. Shortly after the agency chose LB&B to provide the research center with support services, the company hired the USDA's Plum Island contracting officer -- the person responsible for picking LB&B. And the agency has twice awarded LB&B temporary extensions to the company's five-year contract, originally scheduled to expire in October of 2001. Those extensions have allowed LB&B to remain in place, even though the company no longer meets the government's small company/minority-owned business profile.

Last Thursday, Sen. Clinton urged the Agriculture Department to shut down the research center until it can correct conditions leading to a potential threat of contamination at the highly secure facility. Last Friday U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, Republican of New York sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman asking questions about safety and security. "This is another symptom of the problems at the island," Simmons said. "We have a dangerous situation on the island. I wonder what will finally wake people up — an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease?" Simmons said the problems with the generators appeared to be connected to the lack of training and experience of replacement workers brought in by LB&B Associates. LB&B, Simmons said, "has been much more interested in busting the union than in the safety of the facility."

"While we dawdle along...we have a dangerous situation on the island," Rep. Simmons said. "This is an inexcusable disaster waiting to happen."

Sources: Newsday, The Day (Eastern Connecticut), ProMed, Mother Jones, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 30, WABC TV (New York)

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