This is Plum crazy

05/20/2010 12:00 AM |

You don’t have to be a Tea Party member or a Fox News enthusiast to realize that not all taxpayer money sent down to Washington is spent wisely and prudently. Sadly, that’s not limited to Washington. At a time when unity is most needed, the country seems sharply divided, not necessarily along partisan lines, over which agency or program spends what and why.

For an example of an aimless, if not clueless, government at work, gaze east from Orient Point.

The federal government is trapped in an endless back and forth over the future of Plum Island and the Department of Homeland Security’s animal disease research center there. The fires of discontent — and the belief that it’s standard operating procedure in Washington to carelessly throw about millions, if not billions, with little if any coordination or concern for the benefits or potential impacts — are stoked by the fact that there seems no coordination, or common sense, invested in the process.

Plum Island’s fate is tied to the much discussed, but still not funded, construction of a new research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Obviously there’s no need for two such centers, so Plum Island would be shuttered and sold, with the money raised going to the Kansas facility, a $650 million project. A scoping session on the sale will take place tonight (Thursday) at Greenport High School.

For all the scurrying about by mid-level bureaucrats, it appears no one in Washington has stepped back to get the big picture. Reality No. 1 is that the federal government is writing checks with no money in the account. And with the soft economy still placing unprecedented demands on federal resources, now isn’t the time to build such a facility — because we already have one. This week Congressman Tim Bishop pointed out the “what were they thinking?” aspects of this construction daydream.

Reality No. 2 — and this is a biggie — is a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. The economic impacts of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak on Plum Island would exceed $30 million. The impacts for a lab in Kansas? $1 billion. Didn’t anyone suggest that’s a deal-killer?

Then, like something from an episode of “Fantasy Island,” comes the fanciful estimate that the sale of Plum Island, with the proceeds funneled to the Kansas facility, could bring in up to $80 million. Who or what entity would spend that kind of money for an island with the remains of an animal disease research center on its western end and the remnants of a military base, Fort Terry, in the center? The military is not known for its environmental stewardship, so who knows what’s in the ground out there and what it might cost to clean it up.

How is it to be advertised? “Beautiful sunsets, endless beaches, possible buried carcinogens”?

Mr. Bishop is right in calling for a time-out and an examination of possibilities and potential problems, with a fact-based consideration of the costs and benefits. We can only hope for an outbreak of sanity.