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Suffolk Closeup: Contaminated Plum

Can Plum Island, the 843-acre island, a mile-and-a half off Orient Point, be safely preserved as a “national monument” with public access, as is being advocated by a grouping of environmentalists and Republican Congressman Nick LaLota? 

LaLota, of Amityville, whose district encompasses the East End including Shelter Island, has introduced a bill facilitating this.

But as an official of the National Park Service testified last month at a hearing in Washington on LaLota’s measure: “The department appreciates the bill’s intent to increase public access to, and to protect, Plum Island’s natural and cultural heritage, and we support that goal,” he testified. “However, given the multiple hazards to human health and safety that may exist, we have serious concerns about the bill’s requirements that the department assume administrative jurisdiction over the island.”

Michael T. Reynolds, deputy director for Congressional Relations of the National Park Service, a part of the Department of Interior, continued: “Plum Island’s long history of serving as a site for military operations and animal pathogen research has led to a series of ongoing environmental challenges.”

He said the Plum Island Animal Disease Center’s “biocontainment facilities must be decontaminated.” He added that an environmental assessment by the Department of Homeland Security “recommends that a decontamination process, complete validation testing, and soil testing be conducted … Decontamination will include methods such as scrubbing, liquid cleaning, thermal disinfection via autoclaves, chemical disinfection, and fumigation. As a result of the use of cleaning chemicals such as formaldehyde and the thermal disinfection of nearly all equipment within the facility, once usable infrastructure at Plum Island Animal Disease Center will be rendered unsafe for human occupation until this costly decontamination work can be completed.”

Also, “A number of waste management areas must be remediated,” Reynolds said. He said the environmental assessment notes that this includes “numerous sites of concern, including removing buried waste, capping contaminated areas, and conducting soil and groundwater monitoring. However, 10 additional sites of concern require further action.”

“In addition,” said Reynolds, “the Department foresees budgetary challenges — and potentially further environmental concerns — involved with rehabilitating or demolishing aging buildings, maintaining a costly marine transportation system, and upgrading island infrastructure to accommodate use in a manner that is safe and accessible for employees and the public.”

His testimony is online at naturalresources.house.gov/uploadedfiles/testimony_reynolds.pdf

Michael Carroll, author of the New York Times best-selling book “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory,” has long said Plum Island can never be made safe for the public. “The island is an environmental disaster,” says Carroll. “You can’t let anybody on it … There is contamination all over the island” and thus it needs to be “forsaken.”

Plum Island’s antiquated Building 257 was the original site of experiments conducted on animal diseases.(Credit: Julie Lane)

Up until recent decades all waste generated by the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and from prior animal disease work stayed on the island. No waste was removed, including animal remains. Some of it was incinerated, much of it buried on the island. 

After the 9-11 attack, Plum Island was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security out of concern about its vulnerability and access by terrorists seeking disease agents on the island, some of which cross over to people. The island sits along a major water route between eastern Long Island and Connecticut. The U.S. thereafter decided to shut down its Plum Island Animal Disease Center and shift operations to a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility that is to function at the government’s highest safety level, BioSafety Level 4. Built at a cost of $1.25 billion in Kansas, it opened last year.

With operations on Plum Island being made extraneous, the government first considered selling it for private use. Donald Trump, in 2013, before becoming president, was interested in constructing “a world-class golf course” on it. LaLota’s predecessor in Congress, Lee Zeldin of Shirley, and some environmentalists, opposed a sale and Zeldin introduced a bill that was enacted to keep the island in government hands and preserve it. LaLota’s measure advances that.

The Plum Island Lighthouse. (Credit: Julie Lane)

Plum Island was developed in the early 1950s by the U.S. Army with a Cold War mission involving biological warfare that would be waged against livestock in the Soviet Union.

As Newsday investigative reporter John McDonald reported in 1993: “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 documenting the mission covered the front page of Newsday. There was an extensive article.

However, as Carroll’s book discloses, based on research by Carroll, an attorney, in the National Archives in Washington, the U.S. military became apprehensive 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 USSR would best be fought with conventional and nuclear means,” he relates in “Lab 257.”

Thus, the island was turned over to the Department of Agriculture to conduct research into foreign animal diseases, although department officials have acknowledged doing “defensive” biological warfare research on it, too.