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Moving disease research lab could be fatal

BILLINGS, Mont. -- On Jan. 12, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the Plum Island, N.Y., facilities that currently conduct research on dangerous and highly contagious animal health diseases -- such as foot-and-mouth disease -- wil...

BILLINGS, Mont. -- On Jan. 12, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the Plum Island, N.Y., facilities that currently conduct research on dangerous and highly contagious animal health diseases -- such as foot-and-mouth disease -- will be relocated to Manhattan, Kan., right in the heart of cattle country. The new facility will be called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

What is disheartening about the announcement is that the deadline for comments from the public on the Manhattan Campus Site's Environmental Impact Statement was midnight on Jan. 12. This tells us in no uncertain terms that the bureaucrats already had made up their minds to approve the Kansas location and chose to blatantly disregard any concerns the public may have submitted in formal comments. Only time will tell what sort of political favors were involved in this unsuitable decision.

Natural barriers

Proponents of moving the Plum Island facilities to the U.S. mainland claim that job creation and the economic boon outweigh any risk of FMD escaping from the lab and ruining the U.S. cattle industry. Keep in mind that the Plum Island facility was offshore and had natural barriers to prevent FMD and other diseases from affecting animals and humans on the mainland. In 1978, there was an FMD leak on Plum Island, but the natural barriers prevented a catastrophe.

There are no natural barriers at the Manhattan campus site. Just last year, the campus was struck by a tornado, and FMD can be transmitted long distances via air. In 2007 in the United Kingdom -- a result of human error -- FMD leaked from a Merial vaccination lab and infected animals in the surrounding area. And don't forget what the UK suffered in the 2001 FMD outbreak -- almost total destruction of the cattle, sheep and hog industries.

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Kansas ranks third in economic importance to the U.S. live cattle industry. Should an FMD leak occur, it would pose a strategic vulnerability to the economic viability of the U.S. cattle industry as a whole. The highly contagious nature of FMD and other diseases to be domiciled in the NBAF dictate that only a site far removed from significant livestock and meat production -- and one protected by natural barriers -- should be considered. Only the Plum Island site meets these crucial criteria.

Irresponsible

It is irresponsible for Homeland Security to increase the inherent risk of a disease outbreak by willfully introducing disease pathogens in a strategically vulnerable location. The consequences of an inadvertent disease outbreak in such an area would most severely harm the very sectors of the U.S. economy and U.S. population that the NBAF is supposed to protect: U.S. livestock herds, U.S. cattle producers and U.S. red meat consumers.

It is simply unconscionable that Homeland Security would proceed with its ill-conceived plan, particularly when the Government Accountability Office reports that there is no evidence to conclude that FMD research can be done safely on the U.S. mainland.

R-CALF USA respectfully requests that the Department of Homeland Security abandon its plans to locate the NBAF in Kansas. There is no amount of job creation or economic boon that can justify the disaster that awaits this country should a leak occur. R-CALF USA also will encourage Congress and the new administration to make certain this sort of disease research remains on Plum Island.

Editor's Note: Thornsberry is R-CALF USA president and regional director for Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma. He also is a veterinarian who chairs the group's animal health committee.

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