The sordid (and scary) history of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Long Island
// December 25th, 2012 // Odd Happenings
In Gardiners Bay, off the eastern end of the North Fork coast of Long Island, there lies an island that is classified as one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It is not shown on most maps. Under high security and guarded by the Department of Homeland Security, the three mile long island is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a Level 4 Laboratory, the highest security rating granted by the United States government. In this lab, the most dangerous viral and bacterial agents are produced and tested. It has been long believed that the lab is one of the most lethal, and unsafe, bio-warfare facilities in the United States.
History of Plum Island
Plum Island was named by the Dutch after noting the bounty of beach plums that grow along its shores – a Dutch map made in 1640 shows the name “Pruym Eyelant” (Plumb Island). In 1659 the island was purchased by Samuel Willis III from Wyandanch, the ruling local Indian Chieftain of Long Island, for a coat, a barrel of biscuits and 100 fishhooks.
After passing through the possession of more than 20 families, the island was purchased in 1890 by the United States Government for $90,000. A Coast Artillery post, later known as Fort Terry, was established there. The location provided Fort Terry a commanding view of the Atlantic entrance to Long Island Sound. Fort Terry stood for over 50 years when during World War II, Plum Island was activated as an anti-submarine base. In 1952 Plum Island was later reactivated and assigned to the Army Chemical Corps where it was used as an Army biowarfare lab and animal and biological research facility with the stated purpose “to establish and pursue a program of research and development of certain anti-animal biological warfare agents.”
In 1954 the United States Department of Agriculture established the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. During the Cold War a top secret biological weapons program targeting livestock was conducted at the site. The testing was denied by the United States government until 1993 when Newsday magazine unearthed documents that proved otherwise.
In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security took ownership of the island and facilities, though no one could say why.
What’s inside the Plum Island Animal Disease Center
Building 257, located at Fort Terry, was completed around 1911. The original purpose of the building was to store weapons, such as mines, and the structure was designated the Combined Torpedo Storehouse and Cable Tanks building. Fort Terry went through a period of activations and deactivations through World War II until the U.S. Army Chemical Corps took over the facility in 1952 for use in animal biological warfare (BW) research. The conversion of Fort Terry to a biological warfare facility required the remodeling of Building 257 and other structures. As work neared completion on the lab and other facilities in the spring of 1954, the mission of Fort Terry suddenly changed. Construction was completed on May 26, 1954, but the Fort Terry was quickly transferred to the USDA on July 1, 1954. At the time scientists from the Bureau of Animal Industry were already working in Building 257.
The Building 101 structure is a 164,000-square-foot T-shaped white building. It is situated on Plum Island’s northwest plateau on a 10-acre site where it is buttressed by a steep cliff which drops into the ocean. To the east of the building’s site is the old Plum Island Lighthouse.
Construction on Plum Island’s new laboratory Building 101 began around July 1, 1954, around the same time that the Army’s animal bio-warfare facilities at Fort Terry were transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Following the transfer, the facilities on Plum Island became known as the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. The USDA’s $7.7. million Building 101 laboratory facility was dedicated on September 26, 1956. Prior to the building’s opening, the area around it was sprayed with chemicals to deter insect or animal life from approaching the facility. Upon its opening, a variety of tests using pathogens and vectors were conducted on animals in the building. Research on biological weapons at PIADC did not cease until the entire program was canceled in 1969 by Richard Nixon.
A modernization program in 1977 aimed to update both Building 101 and Building 257, but the program was canceled in 1979 because of construction contract irregularities. PIADC facilities were essentially unchanged until a new modernization began in 1990. Two-thirds of the laboratory facilities inside Building 101 were renovated and operations from Building 257 were consolidated into Building 101. Building 257 was closed, and a major expansion, known as Building 100, was completed on Building 101 in 1995.
Security on Plum Island
Over 200 employees and 100 scientists are ferried across to the island each day. The island is publicly disclosed as a Biosafety Level 3 rated facility but insiders note that the types of experiments conducted there require a Level 4 security rating, the highest possible security rating. For instance, the Plum Island laboratory is the only place in the country where research on the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease is permitted. Although Plum Island Laboratory’s stated purpose is to protect the nation’s food supply against foreign animal viruses and agroterrorism, detractors note that most of the facility’s directors over the years had extensive backgrounds in military biowarfare research and development.
Because the island is a potential target for those who might want to steal dangerous pathogens or breach protective barriers in order to release those pathogens into the air, security on and around the tiny island is tightly controlled. Visitors to the facilities must undergo FBI background checks before they are allowed on the island. All bags and personal belongings are inspected before anyone is permitted onto the ferry for the 1.5-mile trip. Armed guards check visitors leaving the island to ensure no food or other material are carried back to the civilian areas.
Power failures at the facility denied
Plum Island has experienced several serious safety incidents in the past, most of which were initially denied. Lab 257, where most of the work on the most virulent diseases takes place, was constructed and outfitted with a number of safety features – air locks, sewage treatment systems (they keep herds of infected animals on the premises), deep refrigeration units, and air filters. Regardless, in 1991, Hurricane Bob knocked out power on the island for several hours, disabling air pressure systems that ensured that the viruses were contained. Viruses intended to be stored at sub zero temperatures thawed. Pumps in sewage tanks stopped and the tanks overflowed. Whether viruses or pathogens escaped at that time is not known or at least, has never been admitted. In fact, lab administration and the US Department of Agriculture initially denied the event even happened but later reports told of workers desperately trying to seal the un-pressurized doors with duct tape in order to stop a potential virus outbreak. Outside experts pointed out that duct tape sealed doors are physically unable to contain a virus.
Foot and Mouth disease outbreaks
Because Congressional law stipulates that live foot and mouth disease virus cannot be studied on the mainland, Plum Island Animal Disease Center is unique in that it is the only laboratory in the U.S. equipped with research facilities that permit the study of Foot-and-mouth disease. It is also unique in that it is the only laboratory to experience not one, but two uncontrolled foot-and-mouth outbreaks. In 1978, a foot-and-mouth outbreak occurred among animals in pens outside the laboratory. All animals were quickly destroyed. Another series of foot and mouth outbreaks occurred in 2004 when the disease was accidentally released within the laboratory.
Did Plum Island release diseases on Cuba?
It is widely believed that Plum Island is specifically engaged in the study of zoonotic diseases, diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans, like West Nile, Lyme disease, and the Ebola virus. The Cuban government alleges that in the 1960s and 70s, bioweapons developed at Plum were deployed against Cuban agriculture, targeting pork, tobacco and sugar cane. The lab of course, denies these allegations. Still, Plum Island administrators remain very tight lipped about the facility, its safety mechanisms, and its true purpose. Even in dire circumstances, the Plum Island lab will hold its secrets tight. When Plum Island employees on the mainland came down with mysterious illnesses, Plum Island doctors and technicians refused to assist their doctors in the diagnosis of the puzzling ailments.
Did Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus originate at Plum Island?
Many believe that both Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, and Dutch Duck Plague, new virus variants that are quite suitable to biowarfare, originated and escaped from Plum Island when the experimental viruses were accidentally released from the facility. Some believe that the viruses were released on purpose in order to test effectiveness on the local population. The USDA writes off as coincidence that the first appearance (1978) of Lyme disease appeared a mere 13 miles northeast of the facility, in Lyme, Connecticut, the town that gave the disease its name. The first man infected by Lyme Disease was quick to point the finger at the nearby Plum Island facility. What is known, is that Plum Island conducted outdoor experiments on ticks and fleas in an effort to create a animal hosted virus that could be spread to humans. In addition, the USDA has also failed to explain the coincidental appearance of West Nile virus in Long Island and New York City in 1999.
1991 employee strike leaves island dangerously exposed
Prior to 1991, all of the Plum Island employees were federal employees employed by the United States government. During 1991 and 1992, the workforce split, with many of the jobs being turned over to the private sector. This naturally led to a simmering resentment in the ranks. On August 13, 2002, resentment came to a full boil and a strike was called. 76 members of the International Union of Operating Engineers walked out at midnight after negotiations on wages and benefits broke down. The union members, employed by a government subcontractor, LB&B Associates, were responsible for essential support services such as decontamination, waste-water treatment, keeping the generators in working order and other maintenance and safety-oriented duties. For the duration of the strike, temps were brought in to replace them, the sentinels and guardians of the island’s infrastructure.
By the end of the month, the FBI had been called to the island to investigate allegations of sabotage. It was reported that the water pressure on the island fell precipitously, disabling decontamination facilities in the necropsy rooms used to examine dead animals. The union blamed the problem on the inexperienced temporary replacement workers, suggesting that they had not been adequately screened and lacked the training to properly maintain the essential daily activity of the island, let alone handle an emergency. Jacob Bunch, a spokesman, refused to comment on the FBI investigation and responded to a New York Times reporter’s query about the replacement workers by stating that
“In terms of training, I will tell you that people are well trained or they wouldn’t be there. I am not going to get into how they are trained.”
He pointedly refused to discuss the issue of security clearances.
The list of serious incidents on Plum Island goes on
In October of 2009, a 600-gallon container of liquid nitrogen somehow managed to tumble off the rear of one of the island’s ferries.
Possible Move and Reassigned Use
“It’s pretty much beginning to reach the end of its life cycle,” John S. Verrico, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, said of the Plum Island lab. Mr. Verrico said that as new livestock diseases emerge, a larger and more secure place for research is needed. “Those cannot be studied in a laboratory like Plum Island,” he said. The Department of Homeland Security announced that it would like to move the research performed at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to Manhattan, Kan. More dangerous research will be done there, on the Kansas State University campus. Many question why a Level 4 facility would be moved to the center of our country, right in the heart of the “beef belt”.
Update: July 17, 2016
The Department of Homeland Security say they expect to close the lab on Plum Island by 2023. The closing of the lab would include the sale of the island to the highest bidder. Opponents, including elected officials from Connecticut and New York, along with conservation groups, are attempting to head off a commercial sale of Plum Island they say would disturb the ecosystem of the island and surrounding waters. The federal General Services Administration, which is handling the sale, declined to comment, citing pending litigation on the sale.
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