Idle Curiosities

I know the world is scary and the economic forecast, supermercado, and gas pump intimidating in the later-day of Bush. But San Antonio, you’re bigger than to roll up and plug up when questionable pitches roll your way.

I know this 'cuz I watch you fight over the Edward’s recharge zone, for better housing standards, for safe communities and the protection of women and children. So what was to explain the pep rally we held last September 11?

I know you’ve got a utility run with the secrecy of the NSA, and hikes in your water and power bills expected any day. But if you can find room in your red-white-and-blue hearts (no lapel pins necessary), maybe you could add one more item to your list of concerns.

I’m talking, of course, of the explosion of bio labs operating across the country and the growing fears of outbreak. I'm talking about Homeland Security's proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility.

On the one hand, such labs have been a huge boon to the regional economy. On the other, the GAO and Congressional research has shown that the explosion of labs and their deadly pathogens across the country is cause for concern.

From the American Institute for Biological Sciences:

The Associated Press (AP) recently reported (2 October 2007) that American laboratories handling the world’s deadliest germs have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, including the transmission of bird flu to a lab technician from an infected ferret’s bite and a missing shipment of the plague that was to be delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The AP reports that the number of accidents is only increasing as the number of biosafety level (BSL) 3 and 4 laboratories that work with the deadly organisms and toxins continues to increase.

BSL-3 labs can house agents and toxins that have the potential for aerosol transmission and may cause serious and potentially lethal infection, although in some cases vaccines or effective treatments are available. Agents handled in BSL-3 labs include anthrax, West Nile Virus, and avian flu. BSL-4 labs handle agents and toxins that pose a high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may also be aerosol transmitted and for which there is no vaccine or therapy. These include Ebola, hemorrhagic fevers, and smallpox.

Your local daily was editorializing in favor of Homeland Security plans that could bring a massive new germ lab to San Antonio way before they bothered to task a reporter to investigate.

Whose in charge of overseeing all these labs? No one, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. And just try getting good data on their practices...

Back to the AIBS policy paper:

Officials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the expansion of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs is taking place across the country in many sectors, including federal, state, academic, and private. However, the GAO investigators revealed that no single federal agency is explicitly tasked with tracking or coordinating biosafety labs and determining their associated risk, despite the fact that 12 federal agencies have some connection with BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs in the United States. Further, oversight of the high-containment labs is fragmented and relies on self-policing. Officials indicated that although they know of 15 BSL-4 labs (with one in the planning stage), the total number of BSL-3 labs is unknown; only those labs that are registered with the CDC-USDA Select Agents program or are federally funded are known.

As one of five finalists for the N-BAF, residents in Long Island had loads of questions about security (full story below).

So does North Carolina's residents.

We didn't exactly have that reaction in SA. Here was my take from September's meeting.

I include the below article to help you start formulating your own questions for when the choice pick is announced. And it's San Antonio. At such a juncture, why not at least pretend we live in a representative democracy, even if our rights have been pulled and stretched like taffy these past few years.

You don't have to wait until they're building over your recharge or loosing their study-subject primates into Hill Country hollows before you get involved.


Southold residents question Plum Island plan


[email protected]

11:57 AM EDT, April 16, 2008

No one in Southold last night actually suggested that building a new federal bio-hazard research facility on Plum Island would bring on an apocalypse.

But a lot of the concerns voiced by local residents at a public hearing on the proposal did touch on events which insurance companies often call an "act of God."

What if windstorms knock down the roof of the containment building, or a tornado spreads disease microbes all across the North Fork, wondered one man. Another asked what the contingency plan was if a hurricane were bearing down on Plum Island, and how would all of Southold be evacuated?

There were other questions -- many written down on cards from the audience -- about the safety of samples being shipped to the lab, about the back-up systems, about why the lab doesn't post daily air quality samples covering its incinerator, and even what would happen if an airplane crashed into the lab.

"Do I have to remind you about September 11?" one woman in the audience asked.

While officials did not come out and admit it, Plum Island does not have its own air force. But Larry Barrett, director of the research facility, said the lab was part of New York State, and would rely on the same safety protections against a terrorist attack by air that any other facility in the state would use.

"What if they drop a bomb," someone else asked a few minutes later.

All of the questions were part of a preliminary public hearing into federal plans to build a new bio and agri-defense research facility to replace the half-century old Plum Island research lab, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Another hearing will be held in the fall, once a preliminary environmental review of the project is completed.

Six sites for the new lab are being looked at, five of them in other states because local officials are lobbying to get the 520,000 square foot proposed facility, and Plum Island because it is the only site in the nation where research is now being done on hoof and mouth disease and other dangerous plant and animal diseases.

The big difference in the current and the proposed facility is that the new Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would be classified as a BSL-4 research facility, compared to Plum Island, which is classified as a BSL-3 lab.

There are only four BSL-4 labs now in the United States. One key difference is that BSL-3 labs do research on microorganisms that can cause significant damage to plants and livestock and -- while they may be a potential danger to humans -- they are not considered harmful because of available protective measures.

A BTL-4 lab, on the other hand, would investigate microorganisms that pose a high risk of life threatening disease, and for which there are no known vaccine or therapy.

Initially, 29 potential sites were proposed for the new facility, and the list has been narrowed down to six. Along with Plum Island, the other sites are in Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Flora, Miss.; Butner, N.C. and San Antonio, Texas.

The new facility would cost about half a billion dollars, and would be designed with higher safety and security standards than now exist at Plum Island.

No final decision has been made on what to do with the existing Plum Island research facility once the new lab opens, but federal officials have said it would be highly unlikely the government would keep both sites open.

A draft environmental impact statement on the new research facility evaluating all six sites is supposed to be ready this spring, and a final statement is to be completed this fall. The actual site of the facility would be determined at least 30 days after that final EIS is released for public comment.

Design work would begin immediately, and construction is planned to start in 2010. The new lab would be in operation in 2013, according to current plans.

Staff writer Bill Bleyer contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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