Power fails for 3 hours at Plum Island ID lab

12/21/02 10:06:52 AM Pacific Standard Time

Power Fails for 3 Hours at Plum Island Infectious Disease
An outtage at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has
renewed concerns about the safety of the high-security
government laboratory.
A three-hour power failure at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center last
weekend renewed concerns about the safety of the high-security government
laboratory while it is being run partly by replacement workers during a
five-months strike.
The loss of power and failure of all three backup generators raised fears
for the first time that the containment of infectious pathogens could have
been seriously compromised at the laboratory. The center, which is run by
the United States Agriculture Department, studies highly infectious animal
diseases like foot and mouth disease and African swine fever.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called yesterday for the laboratory to cease
all operations until an independent safety review could be conducted.
Scientists familiar with the center said that since the diseases studied on
the island do not, for the most part, affect humans, the risk to workers at
the center and to residents of the nearby North Fork of Long Island was
minimal. Several experts in infectious diseases said, however, that a power
failure at such a facility for so long was extraordinarily unusual.
Ken Alibek, a former top Soviet germ warfare official now at George Mason
University, said that although he knew of power failures at similar
facilities, he did not know of a case in which the power and all the backup
generators failed for this long.
"If there was any risk of a pathogen in the air, they need to quarantine all
healthy animals," he said. "If they are sure there was no pathogen in the
air, they may not need to quarantine but they need to take steps to be sure
there was no contagion."
Sandy Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said that the day
after the power failed, safety inspectors recreated what had happened. "They
said they were sure there was no bio-containment breach," she said. She said
that all animals were being monitored and that none had shown any signs of
Ms. Hayes said that Plum Island called the Long Island Power Authority on
Sunday about 1:30 p.m. reporting that the voltage it was receiving was too
low. Bert Cunningham, a spokesman for the authority, said the Plum Island
workers told the authority that they would turn the power off and use backup
generators until the problem was resolved.
Ms. Hayes said that when the generators failed to start automatically,
managers at Plum Island tried to start them manually. "They would only stay
on for a few minutes and then fail," she said, leaving the center without
power for roughly three hours. She said the problem appeared to be
mechanical and not the result of any tampering. Striking workers said the
replacement workers were unfamiliar with the equipment. This week, two new
backup generators were installed, Ms. Hayes said.
At the time of the power failure, three workers were in the biological
containment areas and they were told they could not leave until the power
was restored. Ms. Hayes said the workers were not at any risk to their own
The Plum Island center employs about 200 people, many of whom are federal
government workers, including the scientists and researchers. The 76 union
members who went on strike Aug. 13 are members of the International Union of
Operating Engineers and are employed by L B & B Associates, a government
Ed Brandon, the chief operating officer of L B & B, said he had no comment
on the incident. The strikers include operators of the power plant and the
wastewater treatment plant. Since the strike began, union members, workers
on the island and government officials have expressed concern about whether
the center can operate safely.
The F.B.I. was called to the island in August to investigate reports of
sabotage after water pressure fell too low. As a result of that
investigation, Mark J. DePonte, a striking worker, pleaded guilty to
tampering with government property. In October, a 600-gallon container of
liquid nitrogen fell from the rear of a ferry at the center. In November, it
was discovered that a replacement worker had an arrest record.
The latest incident was made public when a replacement worker notified
members of Senator Clinton's staff of the power failure. In an interview,
the worker, who insisted on anonymity, said, "The reason I am coming forward
is because what I have seen at the center is really out of hand and
something needs to be done about it." Requests by The New York Times to
visit the island have been rejected.
The power failure is the first time the possibility of a leak of the
pathogens studied on the island has been raised.
Workers currently on the island, who insisted on anonymity, strikers
familiar with the operation, government officials and outside scientists
said the power failure could have compromised the safety of the center in
several ways.
People leaving the labs have to go through an elaborate cleaning process:
stripping, passing back through the air lock, scrubbing their nails,
spitting and blowing their noses to clear their respiratory systems,
showering and shampooing their hair. All the rooms are separated by doors
that are sealed with what look like bicycle inner tubes filled with air. The
pressure in the seals is maintained by an air compressor, and if the power
fails, those seals begin to deflate after 15 minutes. Government officials
confirmed that this happened.
Ms. Hayes said workers at the center sealed the doors with duct tape.
In addition, the air pressure in the entire building is kept lower than the
pressure outside; if there is a leak, air would enter, not escape. Under
normal operation, air in the building is filtered before being vented. With
the power out, the filtering would have stopped, but experts thought that
the overall pressure of the facility would probably have stayed low enough
to have limited the risk of a leak.