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Flaws Alleged in Disease Lab Security

Federal report cites thefts, accidents, problems with access and inadequate staff training at New York's Plum Island.

October 19, 2003|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — The nation's only diagnostic facility for dangerous animal diseases lacks adequate security and a satisfactory response plan for terrorism or other catastrophes, according to a federal study.

The report also states that officials have not adequately controlled access to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

The document notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture "permitted eight scientists from other countries access to the biocontainment area without being escorted despite incomplete background checks."

The General Accounting Office report on Plum Island was scheduled to be released Monday.

From January to September, congressional investigators examined Plum Island operations, including allegations replacements for 76 striking maintenance workers were improperly trained.

Critics also have cited the thefts of two laptop computers, accidents involving ferries that bring workers to the island, and power losses.

Democratic lawmakers Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose congressional district includes Plum Island, have lobbied for a federal takeover of staffing for the facility. The workers are currently employed by a private contractor.

Plum Island scientists study contagious animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and swine flu. It is the only facility in the country that has vaccines for those diseases, making it a potential target for a terrorist attack on the agricultural economy, the report said.

The 850-acre facility was run by the Agriculture Department until June, when the Department of Homeland Security assumed control.

"It is premature for us to comment on the report before we have had an opportunity to review it in detail," said Michelle Petrovich, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department.

Martin Glennon, an attorney for the union representing the striking workers, said the report "confirms everything the union has been saying."

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