GAO says moving infectious disease lab is risky

WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department, which wants to move research on highly contagious animal diseases from an island lab to the mainland, never fully assessed the move's safety, an official of Congress' investigative arm told lawmakers on Thursday.

Democrats on the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations want to hold up the move, which administration officials insisted was safe.

There's a lot riding on being right. If the cattle-killer hoof-and-mouth disease were somehow to escape the lab and begin infecting cattle, it could force the slaughter of millions of large animals, disrupt food supplies and spark an export ban.

According to Nancy Kingsbury, a senior official of the Government Accountability Office, the department never addressed the dangers or the history of accidental releases.

Damage from a hoof-and-mouth outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 totaled more than $15 billion. A U.S. outbreak could cost as much as $57 billion, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee said, citing an Agriculture Department estimate.

Jay Cohen, Homeland Security's undersecretary, said his department was currently looking into safety concerns and believed that modern lab designs "effectively minimize these risks." He promised findings in mid-June.

Cohen and Dingell sparred over Homeland Security's failure to provide data that lawmakers had demanded. Dingell called Cohen's department "incompetent, arrogant and secretive," and threatened to use subpoenas to obtain the information.

"It may be that you can treat other committees with arrogant disregard for their requests, but you're sure not going to do it here," Dingell told Cohen.

Cohen said his department had been completely open.

Since 1955, foot-and-mouth research has been confined to laboratories on the 840-acre Plum Island, off the northeastern tip of New York's Long Island. The water surrounding the island and its remoteness serve as effective barriers.

Homeland Security is considering five possible mainland sites: Athens, Ga.; Flora, Miss., Manhattan, Kan., Butner, N.C., and San Antonio, Texas.

Upgrading Plum Island is also an option, Cohen said, although the island isn't risk free. Deer often swim ashore and could transmit the disease. Also worrisome is the possibility of terrorists, Cohen added.

Authorization for the world's largest animal disease research center at a mainland site is contained in the farm bill recently passed by Congress.

Bart Stupak of Michigan, chairman of the subcommittee, called the proposed move to the mainland "a foolish tempting of fate."

Several farm groups agreed but the National Cattleman's Beef Association deferred judgment.