Plum Island’s Mysterious Past Yields an Uncertain Future

  • Strip off Long Island has been home to U.S. germ research
  • White House hopeful Donald Trump once eyed site as golf haven

Plum Island, a strip of land in Long Island Sound coveted by developers, is known for hosting secretive Cold War-era work on the U.S. biological-weapons program and livestock research that some conspiracy theorists link to the spread of Lyme disease.

The latter claim was so persistent the Department of Homeland Security still refutes it on its website.

Lighthouse at Plum Island

Photographer: David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

These days, the 840-acre (340 hectare) site is embroiled in a different kind of speculation: whether the federal government must sell the island to the highest bidder and have it pass into private hands, or whether it can be kept for public use as a wildlife sanctuary or park.

Among those who’ve expressed interest in the past is Donald Trump, the real estate developer and presumptive 2016 Republican nominee for the White House. He told Newsday of his interest during a 2013 interview, saying, “It would be a really beautiful, world-class golf course.”

Others, including members of Congress, worry about destruction of what they call an ecological and environmental treasure. And on Friday, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report providing a cost estimate on lawmakers’ proposals for the General Accountability Office to study options for Plum Island.

Laboratory Shutting

This is happening as the Department of Homeland Security prepares to shutter its National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility on the island and move the laboratory to Manhattan, Kansas. Selling Plum Island to a developer or other buyer could raise as much as $33 million, according to federal government estimates.

Rocky coast of Plum Island

Photographer: Seth Wenig/AP Photo

The CBO said a study could be done for under $500,000 on other options, which might include turning the island into a national park. The assessment was made in response to a House bill, H.R. 1887, sponsored by Representative Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican, which the House passed by voice vote Monday.

Zeldin’s measure would repeal provisions of a 2008 law that require the island to be sold, and allow the land to be obtained by a federal agency such as the National Park Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The legislation has 24 House co-sponsors.

‘Biological Treasure’

“This legislation is well on its way to final passage in the House and hopefully
swift passage in the Senate as well,” Zeldin said in a statement on Saturday. “My legislation to preserve Plum Island is sound environmental policy, economic policy, and quite simply the right thing to do overall.”

Plum Island Animal Disease Center

Photographer: Ed Betz/AP Photo

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, has a similar bill, S. 1675, which would repeal the requirement to sell the island. In 2015 he helped insert language in a budget bill requiring an inter-agency study of the best alternatives for Plum Island. That report is due in June.

“Plum Island is a scenic and biological treasure located right in the middle of Long Island Sound,” Blumenthal and six other Connecticut lawmakers said in a statement on April 29. “The island is home to a rich assortment of endangered species, and should be preserved as a natural sanctuary -- not sold off to the highest bidder.”

They noted that Congress has fully appropriated funds for the new lab in Kansas, meaning the government doesn’t need to sell the island to bankroll the updated facility.

A sale couldn’t take place until the Kansas facility is working and all operations at the Plum Island lab are moved, expected to be by 2023 at the earliest. Yet the government’s General Services Administration, which would be in charge of the transaction, is already marketing Plum Island.

‘Beautiful Views’

“The island boasts sandy shoreline, beautiful views and a harbor strategically situated to provide easy access from the Orient Point facility or elsewhere,” the GSA says in a sales pitch on its website to potential buyers. “Architectural highlights include a lighthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places built in 1869, along with buildings and battery stations constructed as part of Fort Terry, a military fort actively used during the buildup to the Spanish-American War and during World War I and World War II.”

There’s no disputing that Plum Island, for years, also housed some of the most lethal bacteria known to humankind -- organisms responsible for swine flu, foot-and-mouth disease and other livestock ailments. Plum Island was the setting for a 1997 novel of the same name by Nelson DeMille, and even got a shout-out from fictional bogeyman Hannibal Lecter in the Oscar-winning 1991 movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” “Sounds charming,” Lecter said of the place.

For the Birds

The administration of President George W. Bush acknowledged in 2008 that, decades earlier, there had been accidents at the facility, including one in 1978 involving the release of contagious foot-and-mouth disease into the island’s cattle-holding pens.

But the secrecy and security that kept the island isolated also kept it from being developed. And lawmakers who want it protected admit it might take millions of dollars to rehabilitate after decades of germ-research use. They and others argue that the environmental significance of the area can’t be overstated.

The government’s environmental impact statements say that a vast number of species could be affected by development on Plum Island, including at least two endangered shorebirds, the piping plover and the roseate tern. Development may also affect the Atlantic ridley sea turtle, the smallest and most endangered member of the sea turtle family.

‘Save, Not Sell’

Preserve Plum Island, a coalition of environmental groups, has urged citizens to sign a petition for Congress and the government agencies to “to save, not sell, Plum Island.” It estimates the island serves as vital nesting and foraging habitat to more than 210 bird species.

“This unique coastal environment has served our nation as a historic coastal fortress, a vital research institution, and a rich natural preserve that has provided refuge to numerous rare, threatened and endangered species,” the petition reads. “Plum Island must be preserved for conservation, recreation, education and research.”

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