NAZI SCIENTISTS? WEAPONIZED LYME DISEASE? CREEPY EXPERIMENTS IN GENETIC MUTATION? NO. WHAT SCARES LONG ISLANDERS TODAY ABOUT PLUM ISLAND, AMERICA'S MOST MYSTERIOUS RESEARCH FACILITY, IS THE THREAT THAT IT WILL SOON BE SOLD TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER.
Here is what is easy to know: Plum Island lies less than two miles off Orient Point. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Town of Southold. The island is 840 acres and home to the Plum Gut Lighthouse, built in 1869 and listed on the Register of Historic Places; to the picturesquely crumbling remains of Fort Terry, an artifact of the Spanish-American War and both world wars, and, most infamously, to the high-security, government-operated Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the nation’s leading research facility since 1954 for the world’s deadliest animal diseases.
Of course, what has really interested Long Islanders, and conspiracy theorists nationwide, is not necessarily what is known about the island, but everything unknown about it. Specifically, the operations of the government research center. Did a Nazi scientist do diabolical things there? Did the lab unleash a plague that killed ducks on Long Island in 1967? Is this where the Montauk Monster came from? But these wild rumors and speculations may soon come to an abrupt end: The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is closing, and what scares the people most today is the prospect that the island will be sold for private development. Environmentalists, activists, and politicians are concerned that its natural beauty, its history, and all the jobs supporting the laboratory will be lost to a new residential development or a mega-resort. Despite the mysterious past of the island, the real speculation lies in Plum Island’s future.
Plum Island has played a role in national security since the federal government purchased it in 1897 to build Fort Terry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which continues to run the laboratory, constructed an animal-disease research facility there in 1952. In 2003 oversight was handed over to the Department of Homeland Security, although the sale is being handled by the General Services Administration. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is to be relocated to Manhattan, Kansas, with the new research center up and running by an announced (though unlikely to be achieved) date of 2024. The sale’s proceeds are meant to cover the costs incurred by the research center over the past 64 years.
Why do the feds want to sell? As John S. Verrico, chief of media relations for the Department of Homeland Security, puts it, the agency sees no need to “maintain the real estate with taxpayer money,” particularly when the real estate no longer serves a purpose for Homeland Security. The other motive for moving the lab is that its isolation is no longer a benefit. According to Verrico, advancements in biocontainment have changed the way we study diseases, and the waterbound inaccessibility of the island, once its main attraction, has become an unnecessary hassle and expense. The new site in Kansas will offer access to veterinary and agricultural resources in the Midwest, and allow for a quicker response time should a disease breakout threaten the stability of American farming.
So, how does the government go about marketing the sale of a notorious, high-security government lab on an island surrounded by suspicion? The G.S.A is brushing aside all the dark whispers and focusing on the “sandy shoreline, beautiful views, and a harbor strategically situated to provide easy access from Orient Point. . . . ” This is a smooth way of highlighting the island’s proximity to the vineyards of the North Fork and vacation homes of the Hamptons. So smooth, in fact, that, while the relocation of the animal disease center may not be finalized for many years, the ball is already rolling on the sale of the island, with no stronghold legislation yet in place to stop it.
Environmentalists are not happy. The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, also known as Save the Sound, has sued Homeland Security and the G.S.A. to block the sale, under the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act. Save the Sound argues that the island cannot be sold without “a proper environmental review in accordance with federal law.” The G.S.A. and Homeland Security made a motion to dismiss the suit, but environmentalists cheered a big victory in January when Justice Denis Hurley of the Eastern District of New York denied that motion. The case continues in court.
Conservation groups have mobilized behind Save the Sound in a show of force. It is working with the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, reaching over 100 member organizations, including numerous environmental organizations all across Long Island, and has the support of several mighty national and international organizations, including the Nature Conservancy. Save the Sound recently met with executives of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office, although Cuomo has yet to meet with the group himself. Top of the agenda was the possibility that the Coastal Management Program might be used, as it has in the past, to prevent the island from falling into private ownership. The Coastal Management Program allows New York State to protect or develop its coastline as it sees fit, giving New York special power to deny any federal actions if they counter the state’s coastal plans.
It is how conservationists saved Governor’s Island from a similar sale in the 1990s. “If you can save the most valuable piece of real estate [in New York City],” says Louise Harrison, a coordinator for the C.F.E./Save the Sound, “you can do the same thing for an island off of the North Fork.” Meanwhile, the Town of Southold managed to pull off a neat trick to undermine the sale. In 2013, it enacted zoning rules that would prevent any resort or luxury subdivision from being developed on the island. The zoning, if it holds, preserves part of the island for future research, and part for conservation.
According to Scott A. Russell, Southold Town’s supervisor, some 700 acres are now designated as the Plum Island Conservation District. The rest of the 840 total acres is now the Plum Island Research District, zoned to maintain the scientific use of the disease center’s existing buildings (by, say, an educational institution, such as Stony Brook University or, say, the University of Connecticut, as some conservationists dream might happen). Some of New York’s representatives in Washington, D.C., are also fighting. Tim Bishop of Southampton, before losing his Congressional seat to his Republican opponent, Lee Zeldin of Shirley, kept a watchful eye on the island and was an early opponent of its sale. In April of last year, Mr. Zeldin—as a big fan of President Trump, perhaps less a true-blue environmentalist than a politician who knows how to read the mood of his constituents—put forward proposition H.R. 2182 to block the sale.
The bill was passed through the House, but has sat with the Senate since last July. Democratic senators from New York and Connecticut have joined hands on a second bill opposing the sale. What is the value of Plum Island? Price estimates are hard to calculate; there are no realistic “comps,” as they say in the real estate business. Figures as low as $30 million and as high as $90 million have been tossed around — arguably a bargain for an island with four miles of beachfront in a very tony neighborhood. Whoever buys it will have to either repurpose the existing buildings and roadways, or demolish them. Once all that is done, in theory, someone might be able to sell off lots and rake in a billion dollars or more. Its value as a habitat for wildlife and a potential recreational park for humans, in the eyes of conservationists, is greater still.
Pigs "being led into a room to be experimented on," according to a story in The Star in 1978. East Hampton Star Archive.
Much of the island’s acreage is still wild, a mix of wetland and forest and dune. A group of researchers from the New York Natural Heritage Program documented more than 1,000 different animal species on the island, 111 of which are of conservation concern. It is also New York’s largest haul-out site for harbor seals; on any given day hundreds can be seen resting on Plum Island’s rocks. Harrison says that 24 percent of all bird species in North America can be found on this one island, some 57 of them listed by the state as in need of protection. “Unique to the world,” Harrison calls it, and its sale would be a “completely unnecessary and tragic loss.”
Southold Supervisor Russell says that before the special zoning was put into place, he received a phone call from the Trump Organization, asking about the island with an eye toward buying it and building a golf course. While the new zoning regulations seem to be a master-stroke, they do not necessarily ensure that the island is safe: A new town board could be voted in and toss out the Plum Island zoning code, or a buyer could go to court to challenge it. While a challenger might not have a strong case in court, because the zoning is already in place, the town might not be able to afford an extended legal battle.
But, as far as the island’s sale is concerned, there is, as the saying goes, many a slip betwixt cup and lip. First, the government has to safely shut down the animal-research lab and move it to Kansas, a transition that, according to Verrico, is likely to extend well beyond the formal completion date of 2024, with the move unfolding in gradual stages. “We’re still talking several years out,” Verrico says. The overland, long-distance relocation of a lab that manages foreign-born animal diseases cannot be done in haste. Meanwhile, the General Services Administration, overseeing the sale, has a public-relations problem on its hands.
Despite rumors and conspiracy theories to the contrary, the animal disease center operates at Biosafety Level 3, meaning it holds only animal pathogens that do not infect humans. Still, the mistaken release of any such pathogens could wreak havoc on American agriculture and livestock, as well as wildlife. The economic costs of such a crisis would be incalculable, if major American exports of beef, pork, or sheep products were knocked out.
The paranoia surrounding Plum Island is such that when the “Montauk Monster,” a freaky-looking four-legged corpse that appeared to be of unnatural origin, drifted ashore at Ditch Plain in 2008, some excitable observers immediately pointed a finger at Plum Island as its source. Alien? Sea beast? Hybrid spawn of some abominable experiment? Scientists said the Monster was most likely a dog, and it was removed from the beach, but the legend lives on, on Wikipedia: “It was said to have mysteriously disappeared,” Wikipedia says. Whereabouts unknown.
Bioterrorism paranoia comes into the picture, too — but those concerns are actually within the realm of the rational. The Clinton administration had fears about bioterrorism being used against America’s food supply back in the late 1990s, when intelligence reports claimed that several countries, including Iraq and Russia, had “militarized” pathogens. In response, the Department of Agriculture sought more funds for Plum Island, and considered raising the biosafety level. Anxiety intensified after Sept. 11: The island is less than 100 miles from Manhattan, and New Yorkers worried that it would become a target for terrorists.
Michael Christopher Carroll, author of a 2004 book called Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, claims that an associate of Osama bin Laden who happened to be a nuclear physicist once compiled a dossier — later found by U.S. commandos and agents of the Central Intelligence Agency — that included information on Plum Island. As the veteran science reporter Karl Grossman detailed in The Huffington Post, a similar terrorism scenario reared its head in the case of Aafia Siddiqui: “Dubbed ‘Lady Al-Qaeda,’ she holds a doctorate in neuroscience from M.I.T.,” Grossman wrote. “Among the documents in her possession when she was captured in Afghanistan in 2008 were handwritten notes about a ‘mass-casualty attack’ and a list of targets: Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.”
Lab 257 says that after World War II the United States Army placed a Nazi virologist named Erich Traub on the island. Traub’s expertise was biological warfare. Specifically, the infectious capabilities of ticks and mosquitoes. Thus, not only do some people blame the Plum Island lab for the spread of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, some actually believe that Traub developed Lyme disease there. But while it is true that the first case of Lyme disease was identified in 1975, in Old Lyme, Connecticut — just ten miles as the crow flies from Plum Island — it is also true that the bacterium of Lyme, Borrelia burgdorferi, has been found by researchers in specimens of mice and voles from New York State preserved since the 1800s.
Researchers at Oregon State University announced last year that they’d identified the bacterium in fossilized ticks preserved in amber for 15 million years. Not to mention that the arthritic symptoms of Lyme had been described on the East End as “Montauk knee” for a hundred years or more. Lyme cannot have originated on Plum Island. Naturally, while a billionaire investor is unlikely to turn up his or her nose at 840 acres in one of the country’s most expensive real-estate regions just because of wild-eyed talk, they might well use the island’s unappetizing reputation as a price-bargaining chip. The research center is considered the “nation’s premier defense against accidental or intentional introduction of transboundary animal diseases,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s website. It is the only laboratory in the country to work with live foot-and-mouth-disease virus. In 2012, it manufactured a foot-and-mouth vaccine that did not require a live virus, meaning that foot-and-mouth vaccines in the future can be safely manufactured on the mainland.
The lab has been able, according to Verrico, to reduce the number of cows that are culled during a foot-and-mouth outbreak by working with a portion of the virus’s DNA chain. Before, entire herds had to be killed, because science was not able to tell the difference between a sick cow and one that was merely vaccinated: Both tests would come back positive. Now, the difference between the sick and the vaccinated is apparent, and that means cattle are saved from extermination. Other important advances from the lab include the eradication of rinderpest, also known as cattle plague.
Despite the lab operating at Biosafety Level 3, which means that it should not be working with any diseases that affect humans, The New York Times reported in 2009 that the facility was authorized to handle anthrax, which is, of course, deadly to humans. Indeed, one of Plum Island’s nicknames is “Anthrax Island.” Verrico, however, refuted this report, saying that the lab may have received a sample for diagnostic purposes, but that no anthrax research had been done on Plum Island. The anthrax question may be neither here nor there, however. Plum Island has other problems. Since at least 1978, when there was a release of highly contagious foot-and-mouth virus from the labs, infecting cattle kept in holding pens on the island — a slip-up later acknowledged by the Bush administration — its unstable security history has worried Long Islanders, and worried Washington.
In the summer of 2002, the facility’s 74 maintenance workers, employed by a private contractor, went on strike. A leader of the strike pleaded guilty to shutting down the island’s water supply the day before the strike began, threatening the center’s ability to control the escape of infectious diseases. This strike continued for two years, while the center remained opened, holding the nation’s most dangerous pathogens for animals. Shortly before Christmas that same year, there was a power failure on the island. The backup generators failed and, it was broadly reported, duct tape was used to seal biocontainment laboratories. The ventilation systems shutdown, as did the seals on airtight doors.Things took a turn for the worse in 2003, when, as reported in The Times, the General Accounting Office “faulted the center for a litany of security flaws, such as not safeguarding pathogens that could be converted into biological weapons and allowing unescorted foreign scientists access to biocontainment areas.”
Two laptops, later recovered, disappeared from the biocontainment area, making headlines nationwide. Eventually, in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security set aside $30 million to upgrade the center to Biosafety Level 4, but by this point they were already scouting around for a new location to replace Plum Island. In 2007, the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company was awarded a contract of $24 million to upgrade and expand the facilities at Plum Island — evidence of the teeter-totter balance that Homeland Security was trying to maintain as it sought both to keep the current lab safe and find a safer and more convenient location for the lab. Then, in 2013, the government announced its intention to sell.
What is the future of Plum Island? That is what Save the Sound is turning its attention to now. Even Verrico says its future is completely up in the air. “People have hopes and dreams,”Harrison says. Save the Sound is working to come up with a clearer, more specific plan. They’re calling it a “vision process,” and it will be the focus of Save the Sound/C.F.E.’s work over the next year. “I can’t even guess who would be interested in buying the island,” says Russell. He believes the island’s fate will be framed by the zoning Southold put in place. He has two hopes: The first is that the 343 biotech jobs at the research center can be saved — by a biotech firm or a consortium of education institutes who might see value in the laboratories.
Maybe the island could become a renewable energy park. The second wish is that the island’s ecosystem be saved. The most likely scenario, should the zoning survive any future challenges, is that two separate buyers will step in, one interested in conservation, the other in biotech, and maybe even someone drawn by the historical significance of Fort Terry and the Plum Gut Lighthouse. Speculation still swirls around Plum Island, but those who want to save it from development have won round one.
Top photo: In the winter of 1978, a scientists at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center stained and photographed chromosomes of cells from viruses. East Hampton Star Archive.