DHS May Close N.Y. Radiation-Detection Lab Despite Objections

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

New York authorities and other advocates of a specialized government radiation-detection lab complained yesterday that the facility, which is only a mile from the World Trade Center site, is being shut down because Department of Homeland Security officials in Washington failed to understand its work.

Over the past three years, Homeland Security had been scaling back money for the Environmental Measurements Laboratory in Manhattan. The cuts were made even as New York emergency officials were trying to expand the lab's role in protecting the city from terrorism threats. Homeland Security officials said fiscal concerns were a key reason for targeting the lab, whose annual budget was less than $10 million.

"They're . . . our main federal partner in terms of science," said Jonathan A. Duecker, assistant commissioner of counterterrorism for the New York City Police Department. "If DHS decides to put an end to a program . . . it would have been nice for them to come up and ask us."

Counterterrorism experts say a "dirty bomb" attack ranks high on their list of terrorism scenarios, and New York is a preeminent target. The neglect shown a lab able to help detect such weapons is an example of how Homeland Security's spotty knowledge of the scores of agencies it controls can undermine its effectiveness, said members of Congress who are stepping up oversight of DHS.

"Rather than figuring out what the lab did and how it fit, they just let it wither on the vine," said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the Science and Technology Committee's investigations and oversight subcommittee, which held a hearing on the lab yesterday. "We're trying to figure out what happened to what seems an obvious asset."

At the hearing, Miller sought to extract a pledge from Adm. Jay M. Cohen, the new undersecretary for Science and Technology at DHS, to keep the lab open. "I am committed to it, sir. But it does take time to change the culture of a lab," Cohen said.

Advocates for the lab, which is operating with half its original staff, have heard similar promises before. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said DHS officials told him last year that no decision on the lab's future had been made, even though he later found out that written plans to close it had been drafted. He complained that DHS was giving Congress "misleading or incomplete information."

Homeland Security inherited the laboratory from the Department of Energy when DHS was formed in 2003. The lab was created at the start of the Cold War and was among dozens of agencies with potential use in fighting terrorism that transferred to the sprawling new department.

At the time, the lab was finishing work on a monitoring station -- one of many it worked on abroad -- on China's border with North Korea, to detect nuclear activity there. Its scientists also cooperated with 150 other labs around the nation, providing a cross-check on radiation monitoring programs near nuclear plants and elsewhere.

In New York, the laboratory was helping the city's police department choose and maintain hand-held radiation detection devices, training first responders on the impact and measurement of dirty bomb threats and helping monitor ports, bridges and tunnels for signs of nuclear terrorism. One researcher was working on methods for detecting materials in containers aboard ships still in transit.

But soon after the takeover, DHS began cutting the lab's budget. And by 2005, it was planning to shut down the facility.

Penrose "Parney" Albright, a physicist and the White House adviser who created the Science and Technology Directorate at DHS and served as its undersecretary, said he didn't want the laboratory from the beginning.

"It was a total bad penny," Albright said in an interview. "It was not a young place, not what anyone would argue is vibrant."

Tony Fainberg, who oversaw the lab and other radiation-detection programs at DHS, said that Albright and others -- put off by its ragged facilities and some longtime employees resistant to change -- overlooked younger talents and the lab's strong relationship with New York officials.

Fainberg left the radiation program to work in another DHS agency because of his unhappiness over cuts to the lab.

"If I take over an asset in New York City right after Sept. 11 and that asset gets along with New York City officials, I would try to take advantage of that," he said in an interview after yesterday's hearing.

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