Plum Island has been home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center since 1954. File photo: Peter Blasl

Rep. Lee Zeldin and a group of environmentalists are pushing to block U.S. plans to sell Plum Island. Zeldin has introduced a bill to preserve most of the island while providing for “continued research” at it.

This comes despite the warning of Michael Carroll, author of a best-selling book about U.S. government research on the island causing widespread contamination and a recent report by a private consulting firm about environmental issues on the 843-acre island.

“The island is an environmental disaster,” says Carroll, author of “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory.” ”You can’t let anybody on it… There is contamination all over the island” and thus it needs to be “forsaken.” As for Lab 257, an early laboratory on the island, “They can’t get that building clean.”

The report, done by Dermody Consulting of Center Moriches last year, notes that among other things “waste materials from PIADC [Plum Island Animal Disease Center] operations were buried in numerous locations throughout the island” and, as for Lab 257, it cites information “a former employee at the PIADC” gave to Save the Sound—the organization which commissioned the report — that it “was sealed with contamination remaining in place.”

Plum Island was originally developed in the early 1950s by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps to use animal diseases to wage biological warfare.

Newsday investigative reporter John McDonald in 1993 reported: “A 1950s military plan to cripple the Soviet economy by killing horses, cattle and swine called for making biological warfare weapons out of exotic animal diseases at a Plum Island laboratory, now-declassified Army records reveal.” A facsimile of one of the Army records, dated 1951, documenting this mission covered the front page of Newsday.

The article went on: “Documents and interviews disclose for the first time what officials have denied for years: that the mysterious and closely guarded animal lab off the East End of Long Island was originally designed to conduct top-secret research into replicating viruses that could be used to destroy enemy livestock.”

In 1954 Plum Island was turned over to the Department of Agriculture because, according to research conducted in the National Archives in Washington by Carroll, an attorney, the U.S. military became concerned about having to feed millions of people in the Soviet Union if it destroyed food animals. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff “found that a war with the USS. would best be fought with conventional and nuclear means,” says his book.

Research into foreign animal diseases—to prevent their spread to the U.S.—became the mission on Plum Island, although Department of Agriculture officials also acknowledged that “defensive” biological warfare research was done there, too.

After the 9/11 attack, Plum Island was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. And, subsequently the federal government decided to close down its Plum Island operations and shift the research done there to a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas to function at the government’s highest safety level, Biosafety Level 4 — with a special focus on terrorists seeking to poison U.S. animals.

No matter what agency has been in charge at Plum Island, until recent decades all the waste generated at it stayed there — buried in numerous locations or incinerated. The government feared, until recent times, germs getting off the island in waste.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been concerned about what he has called “the island of secrets.” The Cuomo family is quite familiar with Plum Island with Carroll having been a colleague of Andrew’s father, former governor Mario Cuomo, at a Manhattan law firm. The elder Cuomo provided an endorsement of “Lab 257” on its jacket describing it as “a carefully researched, chilling expose of a potential catastrophe.” Andrew Cuomo has called for a “comprehensive investigation” of the island by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Save the Sound, based in Connecticut, in a recent press release, quotes Peter Dermody, president of Dermody Consulting, as saying, “Homeland Security personnel have folded their arms and delayed performing investigations required by New York State regulations and guidelines.” Save the Sound says “everyone wants Plum Island cleaned up.”

The big question: can it be?

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Zeldin’s bill blocking the Plum Island sale, seeking preservation and providing for “continued research” at it—despite the shift of PIADC’s functions to Kansas. Government opens an office, starts a department and a vested interest is created that seeks to perpetuate itself. Will “continued research” generate new and more contamination? A spokesperson tells us Zeldin is “working hard to encourage his Senate colleagues to bring this legislation up for a vote in early 2018.” If it passes in the Senate, it would go to President Trump for signature.

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Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl