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Push to preserve Plum Island

Like his predecessors, the new representative from New York’s 1st Congressional District has taken an interest in preserving Plum Island.

On March 15, Rep. Nick LaLota introduced the Plum Island National Monument Act. The congressman’s first piece of legislation since taking office in January calls for the island to be “established as a national monument for the purpose of ecological conservation, historical preservation, and the discovery and celebration of our shared cultural heritage.”

The 840-acre island, located approximately a mile and a half east of Orient Point, is home to the federal Plum Island Animal Disease Center, and boasts a relatively untouched landscape, which has remained off-limits to visitors, with limited exceptions, for decades.

Mr. LaLota’s effort continues the tradition of representatives of the state’s 1st Congressional District taking measures to preserve Plum Island. In 2013, former Rep. Tim Bishop introduced a bipartisan bill to repeal a 2008 law that called for the sale of the island, as well as the closure of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

Former Rep. Lee Zeldin took up the cause, and in a bipartisan effort, lawmakers from Connecticut and U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Congress passed a $2.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that included a provision to take Plum Island off the auction block in 2020.

The Department of Homeland Security is slated to finish closing the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 2028 and relocate research to a new facility in Manhattan, Kan.

Mr. LaLota’s proposal also mirrors the calls of environmental advocates. Times Review reached out to Mr. LaLota’s office, but could not speak with him prior to publication. In a statement, Mr. LaLota said “for years, Plum Island has been an important piece of Suffolk County.

After years of uncertainty, Congress acted in 2020 to prevent the sale and ensure the preservation of Plum Island. My simple bill would permanently protect Plum Island by designating it as a national monument …”

While national parks must be approved by Congress, the president has the authority to declare a worthy site a national monument through the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Save the Sound, a New York- and Connecticut-based nonprofit, has played a key role in the push to preserve the island’s historic sites and ecological richness, and spearheads the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, a membership made up of 120 national, regional and local organizations that have been working to ensure the island’s permanent conservation.

A seal on a rock at Plum Island. (Reporter file photo)

Louise Harrison, the Long Island natural areas manager for Save the Sound, said the island offers awe-inspiring natural beauty from the 75-foot-high bluffs, from which “you can look to the south over these giant boulders and see harbor seals basking in the sun, with the waves lapping against the rocks,” to its dunes, forested areas and marsh that have “been left unspoiled.”

“It’s a place of wonderment,” Ms. Harrison said. “Your eyes are filled the whole time you’re there and you’re just in a state of excitement.”

As closure of the research facility looms, so does worry over the impact the process may have on the pristine environment. In January, the Department of Homeland Security issued its final environmental assessment of the animal disease center’s closure. The report lists best management practices for closing the research facility and concludes the shutdown “would result in no significant environmental impacts of an adverse nature …”

Plum Island, a magnet for conspiracy theorists

The report of making Plum Island a proposed national monument, may do little to dismiss concerns over what could escape the walls of the mystery-shrouded animal disease center. Conspiracy theorists far beyond Long Island have long been obsessed with the wealth of speculation surrounding the off-limits island, as well as verified laboratory incidents.

Perhaps the most recent, and one of the farthest-reaching rumors regarding the animal disease center, is the “Montauk Monster.”

Fifteen years ago, a group of young women stumbled upon a ghastly animal carcass washed ashore in Montauk, photographed it and sent the pictures to the East Hampton Independent newspaper.

Speculation ensued that the animal was a Plum Island escapee. National news outlets picked up what would become a hair-on-fire internet sensation.

Plum Island and Lyme disease have been intertwined in conversation for decades. The serious illness was named for Old Lyme, Conn., where it was first discovered, about 10 miles away from Plum Island.

Claims that the military conducted experiments on ticks on the island and other areas for a biological weapon, thus spawning Lyme disease, have resulted in congressional action. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed an amendment that called on the Department of Defense’s Inspector General to investigate whether such experiments occurred between 1950 and 1975.

Writer Sam Telford, working with microbiologist David Persing, found that ticks from the South Fork “collected in 1945 were infected,” as Mr. Telford wrote in the Washington Post. “Subsequent studies found that mice from Cape Cod, collected in 1896, were infected. So decades before Lyme was identified — and before military scientists could have altered or weaponized it — the bacterium that causes it was living in the wild.”

Accidents happen, and when they do, conspiracy theories follow. In the summer of 2004, the contagious foot-and-mouth virus spread throughout the animal disease center in two separate incidents, which were undisclosed to the public for several weeks. The outbreak was contained within the center, but rekindled memory of a 1978 outbreak, during which the foot-and-mouth disease spread to animals beyond the walls of the laboratory.

While these incidents, claims and spooky sightings may scare some, they don’t phase environmentalist Louise Harrison of Save the Sound. She respects the serious research conducted within the walls of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, and how it helps humanity.

“They have to constantly stay on top of what’s going on with foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever pathogens that they study there and deliver vaccines that are effective,” she said. “The work that they do there supports food supplies around the world … The economic importance of the science that takes place in Plum Island cannot be easily estimated. Their work basically saves economies worldwide.”