The Mysterious Plum Island Might Soon Be Up For Sale

ConservationPropertyEnvironmental IssuesScienceLifestyle and LeisureEndangered SpeciesLong Island

The very name "Plum Island" sends shivers down the spines of conspiracy theorists.

Some insist federal researchers on this small slab of land in Long Island Sound are hiding alien bodies; that Nazi scientists helped develop biological weapons there; and that Lyme disease and West Nile virus originated in Plum Island test tubes. (Federal officials, by the way, endlessly deny all such lurid claims. They insist the only thing going on there is research into animal diseases.)

Yet conservationists and nature lovers believe the existence of this super-secretive, somewhat sinister laboratory has preserved one of the Sound's environmental gems. They're convinced the best way to save Plum Island might be to let those hopefully not-so-mad scientists continue their experiments on deadly animal plagues.

All of which helps explain why many environmentalists are so pissed off with a new federal report endorsing the sale of the 840-acre island, which lies just off Long Island's North Fork and about 10 miles from the Connecticut shoreline.

In 2008, Congress ordered that the research lab be closed after a new one is built in Kansas, and that Plum Island be sold. The idea was that money from the sale would help cover the humongous cost — as in $1.14 billion — of constructing the super-secure new facility in Manhattan, Kansas, scheduled for completion in 2019.


A Bird Preserve?

The 408-page draft report put on the table in early July by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) lists sale of the island to some private developer or organization as the "preferred alternative."

"The report completely ignored any economic and ecological value the island has to our region," insists Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Charles Rothenberger, a lawyer for Save the Sound here in Connecticut, says the report seems to consider the possibility of keeping the island as a nature preserve "almost as an afterthought." He also blasts the federal officials for "not fully analyzing the potential impact of having high-density housing on that site and what it would mean in terms of the natural resources."

Natural resources as in bank swallow colonies, roseate terns (a federally endangered species), common terns (a threatened species), osprey, common eider, nesting areas for piping plovers (another threatened species) and least terns, and rookeries of black-crowned night herons and great egrets. The list of migrating water birds includes scoters, greater and lesser scaup, common goldeneye, buffleheads, red-breasted mergansers, canvasbacks, and bunches of others.

One survey spotted 100 different bird species using the island or its shore waters — a place that could become a bird-geek paradise.

Mammals like harbor and gray seals pull up on the beaches. The waters around the island are playgrounds and feeding spots for finback, minke and humpback whales, juvenile Kemp's Ridley sea turtles (another rare and endangered species), as well as striped bass and summer flounder.


A little history: a lighthouse, hunting for German subs and far-out diseases

The reason this island and its surrounding waters are so incredibly rich in wildlife is that animal-disease-filled federal lab. For nearly six decades, almost the only people allowed on Plum Island were federal researchers and the people guarding and maintaining the 47 buildings there. That left the rest of the island virtually undisturbed for wildlife and plants.

The island has been owned by the federal government since 1826. It was the site of a lighthouse; Fort Terry, a military bastion from the Spanish-American Warera; and a World War II base for hunting German subs in the Sound.

The animal disease research lab was created in 1954 and it's been the target of rumor, speculation and conspiracy theories ever since.

One of the most persistent has been that Lyme disease was developed there as a biological weapon and escaped, only to start infecting folks just across the Sound in Connecticut. Unfortunately, this spy-thriller concept has been debunked by research indicating undiagnosed cases of Lyme disease were occurring at least as far back as the late 1800s.

What actually happens in those laboratories is scary enough. Highly infectious bugs like hoof-and-mouth disease and contagious viruses transmitted by pigs and horses with names like "Nipah" and "Hendra" that can jump to humans are all studied within those sterilized walls.

Plum Island's facilities are designated as "biosafety level 3" labs – the most secure animal-disease research outfit in the U.S. One reason federal officials want to shut Plum Island down is so they can build a "level 4" lab out in Kansas, which would allow them to study even nastier stuff.

The idea of moving this lab, which is devoted to studying virulent cattle-related diseases, out to the heart of America's cattle-raising region strikes lots of critics as not a bright idea.

"Putting a research facility that does hoof-and-mouth disease research in the middle of cow country is bizarre and frightening," Esposito argues. The reasons behind the move are essentially political and monetary, she insists. Many critics believe the Kansas project is simply a way to get federal jobs and money relocated to a particularly favored congressional district.

Rothenberger says that what appears to be a congressional mandate to sell Plum Island to get the most money possible isn't necessarily that at all. "I don't read the statutory language as 'sell to the highest bidder for any purpose under the sun,'" he says.

One option that's always been used for the disposal of property that's no longer of use to one federal agency is to offer other federal agencies "the right of first refusal," according to Rothenberger.

In this case, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials or the National Park Service would love to get their mitts on Plum Island. The problem is money. If the GSA is required to sell the island, other agencies aren't likely to be able to afford to buy it and neither would environmental or conservation groups.

"I don't think it's a cheap piece of property," Rothenberger says, with more than a little understatement.

Esposito calls the purchase of Plum Island by outside conservationists "highly unlikely and unprecedented" because of its size. "That's massive," she says of those 840 acres in Long Island Sound.

Even figuring out what the island is worth, and how much environmental cleanup might be needed after six decades of secret research, is tough because so few details are available, and the Department of Homeland Security seems likely to continue to keep a firm grip on the flow of information.

"The secrecy that surrounds the place makes an economic evaluation of the island really challenging," Esposito warns.

Rothenberger admits buying the island might be costly, but he says groups might be able to cobble together enough resources from private and public funds to buy the island. "I would not rule that out," he says.



The GSA officials considered four different scenarios in their draft report on what to do with the island.

The first was simply taking no action and letting the facility be mothballed and the land left to the wildlife. They also looked at reusing the facility for some other federal purpose; selling it for low-density housing of about 90 units (like what's on Fishers Island off the Connecticut coast); or using it for high-density development with something like 750 housing units.

And the conclusion was "the sale of the Property out of federal ownership." That action would effectively allow the local township of Southold, on Long Island's North Fork, to decide through its zoning ordinances what type of development could take place on Plum Island.

Heather Lanza, planning director for the township, said last year local residents wouldn't want any big development on the island because that would require lots of new infrastructure and a change in the whole character of this little place.

The battle for Plum Island is a long way from being over.

Critics now have two months to file objections to the GSA report, and then the agency has to schedule more public hearings on the plan to sell the island. The Kansas lab isn't expected to be open until 2019, which is when Plum Island would finally close.

Esposito says the Plum Island sale scenario is particularly odd coming at a time when our nation is looking more and more toward preserving our natural heritage.

"If the federal government didn't own the island," she points out, "it should be trying to buy the island."

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