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The Reporter tours Plum Island

JULIE LANE PHOTO | The Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, is in disrepair with no government money to restore it. Stories persist that it’s haunted.
The Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, is in disrepair with no government money to restore it. Stories persist that it’s haunted.

Tell people you’re visiting Plum Island and be prepared for a litany of the perils in store for you. You’ll be reminded of persistent rumors springing from dire biological experiments that have taken place there and that still might be going on.

Just one,“How interesting” would have been nice.

A recent trip to the 840-acre, three-mile-long island just east of Orient Point, a place that has been fertile ground for conspiracy theories of all stripes, a fortress the best-selling author Thomas Harris thought suitable for his uber-villain, Hannibal Lector, did have some dangers.

But not of the spectacular variety.

•   A tick bite that could happen anywhere on the East End and so I was advised to wear the kind of clothing you would choose for any walk in the woods and told to take appropriate action to check for ticks when I arrived back home.

•  A boat trip on a windy day when Plum Gut, the fast-running, famously temperamental channel between Orient Point and Plum Island makes the ride rocky.

You think you check the weather before heading out to work? Not nearly as carefully as people who work on Plum Island. Because Plum gut is so affected by fickle winds, when there’s a storm in the area, employees don’t even travel between the North Fork and Plum Island.

Another feature for those working at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center is their hours are staggered, so some staff are always on Plum Island. But only a few sleep there. The happy few are a limited number of staff who might be involved in experiments on creatures that only come out at night, such as on bats. Oh, and there’s a ghost, but more on him later.

Plum Island has its own cafeteria for workers, but you’ll have to bring your own lunch if visiting. That food will have to be consumed while you’re on the island, because no food, except for items such as potato chips in still-sealed bags, will be allowed to leave. And, yes, guards will check to ensure you’re taking no half-eaten ham on rye with you. But any drinks you bring can be carried off because while food can potentially provide a breeding ground for bacteria, liquids don’t, a guide explains.

Landfall, Plum Island

Your opening introduction to Plum Island is conducted by a friendly public relations officer who explains the activities, rules and regulations that apply to the government facility. It’s that same public relations officer who will sell you shirts, caps and even cookbooks he said aren’t filled with recipes on how to prepare possum, a joke, we assume, about animal experimentation. The recipes are really good, he insists.

Our guide describes Plum Island as “like a small city,” with its own fire department and emergency medical services. It also has emergency generators, fuel storage tanks and a wastewater treatment plant
You’re allowed to take pictures on most of the island, but not of security guards, their uniforms or even the badges you wear around your neck during your visit.

Security is tight, to put it mildly, with visitors required to provide information to the Department of Homeland Security before being allowed to take any Plum Island tour. Armed guards follow everywhere and a guard in a separate vehicle followed our bus, always on high alert. What struck my partner initially about the armed guards was feeling like a prisoner, transported from place to place.

But the guards generally showed themselves to be as friendly and gracious as our guide.

The average visitor doesn’t get to tour the laboratory where work occurs. Lab workers must wear special garb and take five-minute showers before leaving the premises. Eyeglasses must be soaked in a special solution for 15 minutes to ensure no bacteria is being released from the lab. There are occasional places where you will be asked not to take pictures, but those are rare.

Most visitors don’t enter the laboratory, but get a thorough tour of the grounds and an explanation of what goes on there. The aim, according to our guide, is to end the secrecy that informed the Plum Island operations after it opened in 1954 and gave rise to so many false tales about strange occurrences, he says.

He demonstrates his own faith in the safety of Plum Island by referencing a family day planned for Plum Island employees in August to which he says he’ll be bringing his young children.

Part of the tour even includes Building 257 — an antiquated and dismally decaying building that originally housed the biological weapons operations and also gave rise to those stories about extremely weird experiments being carried out here.

Rumors, facts, arguments

To get it out of the way at the top: the federal government says the Animal Disease Center at Plum Island specializes in just that, studying diseases such as hoof and mouth and developing possible vaccines to protect the nation’s food supply. It’s a highly secure facility that has experienced only one lapse, according to official sources. That was in 1978 when an animal being tested escaped from an outside pen, but not from the island. The response was to end the practice of keeping animals in outdoor pens and moving them inside the laboratory.

But as Reporter columnist Karl Grossman has written, the “U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have brought charges through the years involving the Plum Island waste,” some of which involves carcasses. Today, a government spokesman said the only waste materials  are what an ordinary neighborhood produces and that’s treated at an on-island wastewater treatment plant.

A federal environmental review has also acknowledged that contamination on the island has never been satisfactorily investigated.

And then there’s Building 257, which was used by the U.S. Army to develop biological weapons during the Cold War, according to government documents obtained by Newsday. The purpose was to produce weapons, it’s been reported, that could impact the food supply of the former Soviet Union.

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Plum Island’s antiquated Building 257 was the original site of experiments conducted on animal diseases.
JULIE LANE PHOTO | Plum Island’s antiquated Building 257 was the original site of experiments conducted on animal diseases.

When Building 257 closed in 1995, it wasn’t decontaminated, and today is mostly affected by asbestos, according to a Plum Island spokesman.

But Michael Carroll, author of “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory,” has a different take. As he told Mr. Grossman for a Reporter column, “Every effort to decontaminate Lab 257 … has failed. They can’t get that building clean.”

Past and present

If the decaying building is an ugly sign of Plum Island’s past, riding around the grounds today gives evidence of a lush and lovely campus that was once a British fort during the Revolutionary War. Troops from the North Fork were dispatched to try to force the British out, but their efforts failed and they retreated.

It represents not only the first battle on land here, but the first amphibious landing and retreat of the Revolution by American troops, according to Bob Allen, another guide who once worked on Plum Island. Mr. Allen, the great-grandson of a lighthouse keeper, conducts tours of lighthouses for the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation that sponsored our recent trip.

During World War II, the site was called Fort Terry and housed United States Army troops. Old barracks now are in dilapidated condition, but it’s not difficult to imagine young soldiers marching on the parade ground and playing baseball on open fields.

A display from the Southold Historical Society of pictures and artifacts of Fort Terry in its prime is on exhibition on Plum Island. That exhibition will soon be back in Southold and a coffee table book about Fort Terry and Plum Island is about to be published. One curious fact unearthed by the Historical Society’s research: a United States Zeppelin was once housed on the grounds of the island.

What strikes you touring Plum Island is the number of birds and other wildlife. Endangered piping plovers have settled on beaches and are protected from people tramping across them, just as the sparrow-like birds with the high, piping voices are in other communities where they nest and feed.

Deer occasionally swim across to Plum Island, but United States Department of Agriculture sharpshooters take them out, to ensure none are allowed to roam.

The future

By 2002, Congress was already questioning the expense of maintaining Plum Island as a “Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory,” but suggestions about upgrading it to Level 4 were rankling North Fork residents who feared the upgrade would endanger them.

An upgraded lab would mean the introduction of pathogens involving diseases for which there are no known cures.

The legislative debate eventually led to a 2008 decision to close the Animal Disease Center and sell Plum Island.

In 2009, Manhattan, Kansas, located near a number of other facilities the government uses for research, was selected for the new facility, but with the floundering economy, money wasn’t available for construction.

By 2013, with plans still on the books to decommission Plum Island, the Southold Town Board implemented zoning restrictions that would affect any future uses, including the possibility of a developer putting large houses there or Donald Trump developing a golf resort on the island. Shelter Islander Bill

Smith has suggested that Plum Island could be an ideal site for alternative energy.

For the moment, the existing laboratory at Plum Island will continue to function.

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo has secured state funding for a year-long biological study of Plum Island by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation set to begin next January. Its purpose is to determine what uses could safely be considered for the island once it is decommissioned.

To the lighthouse

Plum Island has always been wedded to mystery. The island’s lighthouse — like most of these lonely beacon facilities — has an enduring story best told on late October nights. But even on a bright summer’s day, it can give you a chill.

Built in 1869, the lighthouse, some say, is the haunt of Colonel Thomas Gardiner, a Revolutionary War hero. At the lighthouse, Mr. Allen told the tale of how the colonel was to be buried on Gardiners Island, but because he died from an infectious disease, was instead buried on Plum Island, the only person interred on the lonely isle. Even then, Plum Island was a place for hidden maladies.

Early on, lighthouse keepers insisted they heard strange, other-worldly noises because the colonel was so unhappy about his final resting place, he did not rest.

A former lighthouse keeper, Rich Kenney, has reported that one of his first nights on the island, he and the man he was replacing were watching TV when they heard someone tumbling down the lighthouse stairs and out to a landing. But a subsequent search found they were the only two people on the island.

It wasn’t the last time he was spooked. He’d hear someone walking around the lighthouse attic while he was in bed at night, continually pacing and saying something he could never make out.

A good story, whether true or not, like most connected to Plum Island.