Editorial: Keep Plum Island, forget the Kansas lab

Here’s reason number — well, we’ve lost track — why closing the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and building a new laboratory in Kansas is such a foolish idea:
The National Research Council, an advisory organization affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, recently concluded that the federal government has underestimated the already shockingly high risks (our description, not theirs) associated with locating a new facility to study deadly animal diseases near a densely populated area that just happens to be in the heart of cattle country.
In its own project risk assessment, the Department of Homeland Security said there’s close to a 70 percent chance of an accidental release of the virus causing foot-and-mouth disease during the 50-year anticipated lifetime of the new laboratory proposed for Manhattan, Kan. The department added that the economic impacts could reach $50 billion. As bad as that sounds, the National Research Council said in a report to Congress that the risks and economic losses could be “significantly higher.”
How much higher? Given that 9.5 percent of the country’s cattle inventory is within 200 miles of the proposed lab, the research council noted that an accidental release of the highly contagious FMD would cause a “widespread and economically devastating outbreak.” The U.S. has been FMD-free since 1929, but that cannot be said for other parts of the world.
Homeland Security concluded that “pockets of infection would be expected to occur great distances from the initial focus of infection.” The research council, supporting the same point, said that the government’s model for assessing risk was flawed because it considered just seven states and failed to include animals, particularly species susceptible to FMD, moving to other states, Canada and Mexico.
By the way, the suggested location for the new lab is near Kansas State University’s football stadium. And the closest hospital lacks clinical isolation facilities and infectious disease clinicians. That, the council declared, could cost lives.
Is it any wonder that Congress has yet to fund this $451 million fiasco?
Our friends in Washington say they can cover the project’s price in part through the sale of Plum Island. But with Southold Town planning to create a new zoning category that permits only the type of research now taking place there — and ruling out casinos and condos — who would buy it?
Someone within the Kansas congressional delegation must have called in a favor or two to get this project going. Only in the twisted world of politics does building a livestock disease research center in livestock central make sense. But change is coming to Congress and most of the 85 representatives-elect who began their freshmen orientation this week describe themselves as fiscal conservatives. They campaigned on the need to trim federal spending. This ill-conceived Kansas lab is a good place to start cutting.