Clinton urges USDA to close lab

DEC. 19–NEW YORK — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is urging the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to shut down its Plum Island Animal Disease Laboratory after a power outage created a potential threat of contamination at the lab where scientists study contagious animal viruses such as foot-and-mouth disease.

Workers on the island off New York’s coast have been on strike since August and their temporary replacements were unable to get emergency backup generators working for several hours during the outage, Clinton told The Associated Press.

Workers used duct tape to seal off laboratory doors, and officials said there was no leakage of viral materials.

“There is no other option,” Clinton, D-N.Y., wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. She said the USDA should “immediately cancel” its contract with LB&B Associates, the private company that runs the complex, and shut down the lab in the interim.

Officials of the federal agency denied that the power breakdown posed any threat to public safety. The diseases studied, such as foot-and-mouth and African swine fever, are highly dangerous to domestic animals but not to humans.

“There was no danger whatsoever. The biocontainment absolutely was not breached,” said Sandy Miller Hayes, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

The Sunday outage originated at a substation that supplies power to Plum Island and one other customer and lasted about an hour, said Bert Cunningham, a spokesman for the Long Island Power Authority.

However, Marty Glennon, an attorney for the striking maintenance workers’ union, said the outage at Plum Island lasted five hours and “compromised containment areas.”

The labor dispute at Plum Island, where temporary workers are filling the roles of 76 striking maintenance employees, was believed settled last month, but an agreement ratified by the union was rejected by LB&B, which holds a number of service contracts with federal agencies.

Clinton had previously criticized LB&B’s use of temporary workers at Plum Island, saying they weren’t properly screened to work in a facility whose critical mission falls within the Bush administration’s new Home Security department.

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