Mystery around remote NY island begins to lift as storied animal
research lab heads west
ELTMAN Associated Press Writer
This undated file photo provided by the Agricultural Research Service of
the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows Plum Island Animal Disease Center
off the coast of New York's Long Island. The federal government is looking
for the public's input on what to do with the island now that plans are
under way to move an animal research lab there to Kansas. (AP Photo/ARS-USDA/File)
(Anonymous, AP / August 9, 2006)
CITY, N.Y. (AP) — Hannibal Lecter, the fictional villain in "Silence
of the Lambs," said it sounded "charming." Author Nelson
DeMille made it the centerpiece of his 1997 thriller about deadly viruses
and hidden treasure.
the infancy of the Cold War, Plum Island has been the site of an animal
disease laboratory; access is limited to scientists, support personnel and,
on rare occasions, invited guests. Because of its remote location a mile
and half off the eastern tip of Long Island's north fork, it frequently
has been the target of rife speculation about what really goes on there.
general public could someday get access to the 840-acre pork chop-shaped
oasis now that the federal government is moving its animal disease research
functions to a new lab in Manhattan, Kan. With a "For Sale" sign
about to go up at Plum Island, the General Services Administration is seeking
community input on what should be done with the property. A hearing was
held Wednesday in Connecticut and another is scheduled for Thursday on Long
the laboratory, the island is home to a defunct U.S. Army base and a charming
little lighthouse that looks out onto Long Island Sound. And, as Agent Clarice
Starling told Lecter: "There's a very, very nice beach. Terns nest
whose 1997 book "Plum Island," about a fictional detective investigating
the murders of two biologists who worked at the lab, said in an interview
with The Associated Press this week that he'd like the government to retain
"The most obvious thing to do would be to make it into a federal park
and nature preserve," he said. "You could turn the lab into a
is hardly nostalgic about the lab moving to Kansas, calling Plum Island
"a terrorist target waiting to happen."
concerns were shared by federal officials. The U.S. Government Accountability
Office told Congress in a 2007 security report that Plum Island's vulnerability
was apparent after the 9/11 terror attacks. The GAO said new laws and rules
were enacted, tightening access to the facility to help protect animal health
and reduce the possibility of bioterrorism. Plum Island was transferred
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security
and plans were begun to replace it with a "higher-level biosecurity
GAO said Plum Island scientists research such pathogens as foot-and-mouth
disease, which is highly contagious to livestock and could cause "catastrophic
economic losses" and imperil the nation's food supply.
pathogens known to have been maintained at Plum Island could also cause
illness and death in humans," the GAO said.
Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which operates
the island, declined to provide specific details of security, but said it
includes security patrols, checkpoints, cameras, radar, locks and fences.
closer you get to the items you want to protect, the more intense the security
becomes," she said.
any discussions about development at Plum Island can proceed, officials
must first determine the extent of any damage to the soil and water, environmentalist
Adrienne Esposito said.
time a government facility is cloaked in secrecy, you have to wonder about
what went on," said Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign
for the Environment. "The more you look, the more you find. This would
be the first time a comprehensive examination of the island would be pursued."
Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose district includes Plum Island, is not convinced
the move to Kansas is a good idea. He said in a letter to a House homeland
security subcommittee this week that the sale of Plum Island could fetch
$50 million to $80 million — not counting cleanup costs. Bishop said
that would hardly cover the costs of building a new $650 million lab in
we cross a point of no return, I want everyone to open their eyes and look
at what we're doing here," Bishop said. "Rather than pour hundreds
of millions of taxpayer dollars down a sinkhole in Kansas and open the Pandora's
Box of decommissioning Plum Island, we should ... make use of existing facilities
that continue to serve this nation well."
year, Congress appropriated $32 million for a new 520,000-square-foot National
Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas, most of it for planning and design,
though it did order a safety study. The new lab will allow research on diseases
that can be passed from animals to humans, something currently not done
at Plum Island.
safety study was prompted by some who questioned the wisdom of opening an
animal disease lab in the so-called Beef Belt because hoof and mouth and
other contagious diseases are researched by Agriculture Department scientists.
for now, the move to Kansas appears on track, which leaves the future of
Plum Island an open question.
town supervisor in Southold, where the lab is located, said he would like
to replace the 300 or so scientists working on animal research with some
type of renewable energy center.