Plum Island Animal Disease Center:
DHS Has Made Significant Progress Implementing Security Recommendations, but Several Recommendations Remain Open
GAO-08-306R: Published: Dec 17, 2007. Publicly Released: Dec 17, 2007.
For many years, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) owned and operated the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on an island in the Long Island Sound off the coast of New York. Scientists at Plum Island, often with the assistance of scientists from other countries, diagnose the pathogens that cause foreign animal diseases and then conduct research to, among other things, develop vaccines to protect against them. Some of the pathogens maintained at Plum Island, such as foot-and-mouth disease, are highly contagious to livestock and could cause catastrophic economic losses in the agricultural sector if they are released outside the facility. Other pathogens known to have been maintained at Plum Island could also cause illness and death in humans. For these reasons, USDA conducts its work on Plum Island within a sealed biocontainment area that has special safety features designed to contain the pathogens. After the terrorist attacks on the United States, new laws and regulations required officials at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to further restrict access to the pathogens in order to protect animal health and, thereby, also help reduce the possibility of bioterrorism. In addition, Plum Island and its assets and liabilities were transferred from USDA to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Today, USDA continues to conduct its diagnostic and research work on Plum Island, but it now does so in coordination with DHS as part of a broader joint strategy to protect against the intentional or accidental introduction of foreign animal diseases. In 2005, we reported that, as part of that strategy, DHS had started to develop plans to replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center with a new, modernized facility. Since then, DHS has selected six possible sites for this new facility, including Plum Island. This planned higher-level biosecurity facility will enable the department to expand the research currently conducted on the island to include work on higher-consequence biological threats posed by zoonotic (i.e., transmittable from animals to humans) and foreign animal diseases.
As a part of our routine audit work, we have been tracking the status of the 2003 Plum Island security recommendations. In addition, in May 2007, we received a request from Senator Charles Schumer to report on this matter. On September 28, 2007, we briefed interested congressional staff on the extent to which DHS had implemented the recommendations at that time. Because of broad-based congressional interest, under the Comptroller General's statutory authority to conduct evaluations on his own initiative, we are issuing this report, which summarizes that briefing. To evaluate DHS's efforts to implement the Plum Island security recommendations, we reviewed pertinent DHS and USDA documents; interviewed DHS, USDA, and other personnel responsible for Plum Island's security; and, during a visit to Plum Island in 2005, observed improvements in physical security and the procedures securing the biocontainment area as well as the facility's infrastructure. However, we did not conduct a comprehensive audit of all decisions that DHS and USDA have made to improve Plum Island security. We provided DHS and USDA an opportunity to verify facts of this report. Officials from both agencies provided us with additional information, which has been incorporated into this report. We performed our work from February 2004 through December 2007. In summary, DHS has made significant progress and has implemented 18 of the 24 recommendations. However, implementation of the 6 remaining recommendations is still under way. In 2003, physical security at Plum Island was deficient in several ways. For example, alarms and door sensors for detecting intruders were not fully operational; controls to account for the keys to the island's facilities were deficient; and USDA was not providing sufficient physical security for certain assets, including those critical to the continued operation of the facility. These vulnerabilities were particularly troubling because a strike was under way, and sabotage of the island's infrastructure had already occurred. DHS has since taken many actions in response to our recommendations. For example, alarms and door sensors are now in use, and DHS has implemented procedures to better control access to keys to facilities. In addition, the department has better secured certain features of the physical infrastructure that supports the continued operation of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. DHS has also improved the security of North America's only foot-and-mouth disease vaccine bank. This bank represents years of cooperative research performed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and the material it contains is considered a critical asset for controlling a large outbreak.