Inside Plum Island: Mysteries, Myths & Monsters Explained

Plum Island

The ferry horn pierces the thick morning fog between Orient Point at the North Fork’s tip and Plum Island, where jet black Great Cormorants perched atop wooden pilings crane their crooked necks to spy visitors aboard the mostly empty boat as it sails into Plum Gut Harbor.

After passing through barbed-wire fences, being searched by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents, agreeing not to photograph secure areas and signing affidavits promising to “avoid contact with cattle, sheep, goats, deer and…swine for…5 days,” a small pack of journalists—including this reporter, who first requested a tour years ago—board a navy blue school bus for the two-minute ride to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

The lab, which last year created a new vaccine that researchers hope will help eradicate foot-and-mouth disease in livestock worldwide, is lifting the veil on their secretive setup as the feds work to move it to Kansas in the coming decade—a plan that has set off a tug-of-war between New York and Midwestern lawmakers. And since the plan includes selling the 843-acre Island to offset the $1.2-billion cost of building a new lab that will research into incurable airborne deadly animal-to-human diseases, beyond Plum Island’s purvue, it couldn’t hurt to dispel the many conspiracy theories that roll ashore.

Montauk Monsters and chronic Lyme disease supposedly escaped from the mysterious pork chop-shaped island Nelson DeMille and others wrote books about. An unidentified man with “very long fingers” and recent brain surgery scars washed up dead here in 2010, sparking suspicions the lab’s scientists were experimenting on humans. And some claim that a top Nazi virologist helped the U.S. Army develop biological weapons after World War II before the Department of Agriculture took over the original lab in the 1950s.

“We didn’t have anything to do with any of those,” Dr. Lawrence Barrett, the lab director who maintains the Montauk Monster was just a decomposing dog, says in his Oklahoma accent, as the tour passes the old lab, called Building 257. He blasts a 2004 book on it by Michael Carroll, but not by name, adding that no photos are allowed of the century-old white structure with a slaughterhouse-style cattle chute for test cows that were penned outside.

The current lab, which opened two decades ago, keeps the animals inside to avoid a potential outbreak blowing in the wind.

“What we’re most worried about is an agent getting off this island,” Barrett says, referring to the stringent protocols to prevent the release of diseases.

Construction is slated to start next year at Plum Island’s replacement, the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, joining four nationwide biosecurity level (BSL) 4 facilities with airlocks, space suits and vacuum rooms designed for researching fatal exotic aerosol-transmitted infections without vaccines, like Ebola. Plum Island is a BSL 3 lab with similarly stringent protocols that require anyone leaving to shower first, where one scientist set a record of 11 showers in one day.

DHS credits the need to move nearly 400 LI jobs to a classic case of anti-virus NIMBYism, planned academic synergy at Kansas State University’s nearby Biosecurity Research Institute and the fact that Plum Island’s foreign livestock disease testing facility requires samples be airlifted from America’s agricultural heartland. Modern labs nullified the remote island security strategy—requiring in severe cases that animals be rushed in by helicopter—although doubts persist about the wisdom of building such a lab in tornado alley, despite protections.

But, just before DHS and the General Services Administration (GSA) published Aug. 29 their “record of decision,” a final step before an eventual sale, Town of Southold officials blocked any possibility of Plum Island Estates by zoning most of the island as a preservation district, except for the lab, which they hope to interest other researchers in using. Proposing the island’s conservation in Congress was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).

“Plum Island is one of the natural treasures of the Northeast,” Bishop said last month of seals, terns and other endangered wildlife living amid overgrown defunct Spanish-American War-era Fort Terry military installations. “If the federal government did not already own Plum Island, it would be seeking to purchase it for conservation as prime habitat for rare birds and plants.”

GSA officials have reportedly estimated the sale price of the island as up to $80 million, a drop in the bucket of the Kansas lab cost. Although a price has not been formally assessed, a billionaire bought nearby Robins Island—about half the size of Plum Island—for $12 million in 1994. That’s $36 million when adjusted for inflation and double the acreage, not including the value of features like Plum Island’s circa-1869 lighthouse.

In the meantime, Plum Island scientists forge ahead with their stated mission to protect the $1.5-billion U.S. agricultural industry from the first foot-and-mouth in cattle since ’29. The fast-spreading infection effectively makes livestock lame. Although it doesn’t sicken humans, diseased meat is barred from entering the food chain. Britain culled 6 million cattle exposed to the disease in 2001, costing the industry $16 billion.

“There’s so much work that goes into getting our food safe,” says Dr. Ferdinand Torres, head of the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostics Lab at Plum Island. Experts there regularly test samples that come in what they playfully call a box of chocolates, “because you never know what you’re gonna find.”

The new vaccine they developed—the first for foot-and-mouth in 50 years—makes it possible to tell vaccinated and unvaccinated cows apart, negating the devastating need to cull entire herds as a precaution, Barrett says. Now, they’re working to make it last longer so the animals don’t need booster shots every six months to save farmers money.

“We still have work to do, we can’t just shut this lab down and wait,” says John Verrico, a DHS spokesman. As for the need to move and upgrade—pending congressional funding for the construction—he adds: “There are diseases that are popping up around the world that we don’t study here.”