A couple of months ago, the Department of Homeland Security, USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services made a joint announcement: The disease-study laboratory on Plum Island, N.Y., would be closed and the disease germs under study would be moved to a new site. Plum Island, please note, is an island. The closest neighbors are more than two miles away, protected from the site by the choppy Atlantic Ocean.
The diseases being studied include foot-and-mouth, avian flu, anthrax, and (according to a story by the Associated Press) other "rare hemorrhagic fevers that attack the vascular system." These disease germs are lethal to humans and animals and there are no cures or preventions other than quarantine. The study of these diseases is at present, by law, banned on the mainland.
Quarantine and isolation have been the best defense against these and other diseases since the first discovery of germs. Quarantine, while sacrificing the vulnerable in the quarantined community, works. Unless quarantine is broken by the purposeful exit of a diseased carrier, quarantine stops the spread of disease.
When it was learned that the lab had, according to the AP, "security lapses," a coalition of east-coast Congress persons, led by Hillary Clinton, quickly introduced HR 1717 to change that law. Then Congress allotted money to design a new facility but not to build it.
The new "National Bio- and Agro-Defense Lab" will be a whopping 520,000 square feet, and it will have the highest level of security rating. Lab workers will wear protective suits like space suits and organisms will be confined in stainless steel chambers. The workers will infect animals -- large animals like sheep and cattle -- and study the results, but the animals will be held in rooms separate from the researchers. The air will be cleansed by foolproof filters and the foolproof workers' foolproof protective foolproof clothing and all materials including the dead animals will be foolproofily incinerated on the site.
But state-of-the-art, foolproof systems have proven that they only work perfectly in the minds of the creators. Filters fail, incinerators fail, workers become rushed and forgetful. One group calling itself The Sunshine Project, has documented two dozen security breaches and sealed chamber mishaps in foolproof facilities, including a famous Texas A&M shut-down for not reporting a brucella incident.
Here's the really crazy part. As soon as the announcement was made, cities began to vie feverishly for the privilege of bringing these poisons to their population. The earliest lists of potential sites included 17 cities that would donate land to the government to bring the construction, and 300 permanent jobs, to their home towns. The construction would run an estimated $470 million, nothing to sneeze at, plus the predictable overruns.
The University of Missouri offered 100 acres on a major intersection in the Columbia city limits within a mile of an elementary school and a large retirement community. The neighbors, a fairly well-heeled and educated university crowd that had built homes near these predictable public places, were appalled. Within a couple of days, they had begun a petition drive and put up a web site where folks could sign a virtual petition -- nodeathlab.org. A local folk singer put together a CD and distributed it to the community radio station where it got a fair amount of play.
Besides finding a number of examples of government facilities where protective systems failed, the neighbors pointed out that the lab is a "defense" facility. What, they asked, does this mean? Who would be in charge? The Department of Defense? What would be the relationship to the medical community? If there was an "incident," would the local medical community have the knowledge to treat it?
Interestingly, the promoters of the lab in Columbia didn't answer these questions. And no one has ever said that the lab will work on discovering cures. This may be because there are already many laboratories all over the world searching for vaccines and cures for these diseases, and their next generations. For the drug company that figures out how to whack something like avian flu, the benefits are clear.
In Kentucky and Wisconsin, neighbors to proposed sites reacted by building their own websites. And, guess what! When the short list was announced, Missouri, Kentucky and Wisconsin were off it! The neighbors who had informed themselves, educated others, mounted a PR campaign, collected petitions, asked embarrassing questions, had won.
And here's who's still on the list: San Antonio, Texas; Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Madison County, Miss.; and Durham and Granville counties, N.C.
These locations are not islands or deep desert. And one of these locations, probably the one least able to inform and defend themselves, will become the site for the new facility.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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