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The Battle to Preserve Plum Island

The island where the world’s most dangerous animal diseases are studied has long been a magnet for conspiracy theorists. But Plum Island’s real-life history and the battle over its future are just as strange.

  • 18 min to read
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John Turner couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. It was January 2009 and he was reading a Newsday article with a short blurb about the future of Plum Island.

Eight miles off the coast of Connecticut and 1½ miles from Long Island, the island is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and has long held the public’s imagination. It inspired the plot and title of a 1997 Nelson DeMille novel, and Hannibal Lecter was offered visits there in exchange for cooperation in The Silence of the Lambs. Google it and you’ll find conspiracy theories claiming it was founded by a Nazi scientist (it wasn’t) and see the island blamed for the 1975 surge of Lyme disease in a cluster of people in Connecticut’s Lyme area, which led to the diagnosis of the disease (this is also clearly wrong, as Lyme disease was never studied on Plum Island, and the disease has been found in frozen specimens from hundreds of years ago).

Plum Island is, however, the site where the U.S. government studies the world’s most dangerous animal diseases in order to protect the U.S. food supply. It is the only lab in the U.S. that works with active strains of the incredibly contagious and animal-ravaging foot-and-mouth disease.

Every day about 400 government employees, 200 from Connecticut and 200 from Long Island, board ferries to the island. Once there, those who work inside the “hot zone” — any area with dangerous diseases — go through a rigorous decontamination process involving showers, a change of clothes and a quarantine from farm animals after leaving the island that can last as long as a week. When questionable diseases are discovered in U.S. livestock, samples from affected animals are sometimes flown by helicopter to the island, where scientists work to diagnose the disease and attempt to prevent an outbreak.

None of these details caught Turner’s eye in 2009 as he read the Newsday article. Instead he was struck by the news that the Plum Island facility was soon to be phased out and the island, which is part of Suffolk County, New York, was to be sold to help offset the cost of building a new, more advanced animal disease lab in Manhattan, Kansas.

Turner reread this last part to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. He hadn’t. The island, which since the 1950s had been something of a de facto nature preserve, was for sale.

He was horrified. He saw the island as a “national treasure,” a place where, almost by accident, a variety of important animal habitats had been preserved.

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Plum Island is a popular spot for seals to congregate.

“Some bean counters in Washington had dollar signs in their eyes,” he says.

Indeed, the 840-acre island seemed to represent some of the most sought-after and expensive real estate in the world, nestled, as it was, between the ultra-developed and pricey Connecticut and Long Island coasts. Estimates for the value were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the years to come, developers would talk about potential future uses for the island, which often included golf courses, condos and hotels, or some combination.

Turner, a longtime Long Island preservationist, was determined to prevent this and protect the island as a natural resource. He started reaching out to environmentalists on both sides of Long Island. Before long he had connected with Save the Sound, an environmental group based in New Haven and run by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, and formed the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. Chris Cryder, outreach coordinator for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition and special projects coordinator for Save the Sound, says the island is important for those in Connecticut, New York and beyond. “Plum Island really has become an island of international importance, particularly from a wildlife perspective,” Cryder says. “But it is also home to many interesting cultural resources including the Plum Island lighthouse [built in 1869].”

The battle lines had been drawn and Plum Island was entering what was arguably the strangest era of its often strange history. The nine-plus-year effort to halt sale of the island would involve local, state and federal politicians, several failed bills in Congress, tactical changes to local zoning law and even a brief cameo from current U.S. president and longtime metro area developer Donald Trump.

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Chris Cryder, outreach coordinator for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition and special projects coordinator for Save The Sound, shares his views on keeping Plum Island in the public domain during a public forum in 2015 in New Haven on the environmental and ecological significance of the island.


“Islands are by nature mystical, mysterious and mutable. So it seems fitting that Plum Island … is shaped like a question mark,” write Ruth Ann Bramson, Geoffrey K. Fleming and Amy Kasuga Folk in their history of the island, A World Unto Itself.

The island occupies the entrance to Gardiners Bay off Orient Point and the tip of Long Island’s North Fork. Visible to riders on the New London-to-Orient Point ferry, it has pristine views, sandy beaches, woodlands and wetlands. At 840 acres it is sizable but smaller than its neighbors, the 3,318-acre Gardiners Island and the 7,000-acre Block Island.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans hunted, fished and grew corn on or near the island, which was named for the beach plums that grew along its shores. It was sold to an Englishman in 1659, according to A World Unto Itself, and in the 1800s it was popular among the wealthy for its fish camps.

In the 1898 Spanish-American War it became Fort Terry, a military installation designed to prevent enemy ships from using Long Island Sound as a backdoor to Manhattan. It saw sporadic use in both world wars, serving as an anti-submarine base in World War II.

In the late 1940s, there was talk of closing the fort and selling the island. Before that happened, a new role was envisioned, one that would help the country defend not from submarines, but from a potentially more dangerous and stealthy enemy: viruses.

Despite some public opposition to the project from locals, by the early 1950s plans for a facility at Plum Island were going forward. At the start of its new life, Plum Island was shared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Army Chemical Corps. The Department of Agriculture focused on protecting the U.S. food supply by studying animal diseases that had not yet spread to the U.S., work it continues to this day inside the island’s Biosafety Level 3 lab.

According to A World Unto Itself, the Army Chemical Corps occupied Building or Lab 257, formerly a torpedo storehouse and storage building, to study “exotic animal diseases both for offensive and defensive purposes,” but “the army’s research effort there ended almost before it began.” The site was activated by the Chemical Corps in 1952 and by 1954 the Chemical Corps’ work on Plum Island was discontinued.

“The Army Chemical Corps’ job was to do biological warfare, but they didn’t last on the island very long,” says Amy Kasuga Folk, a coauthor of A World Unto Itself. She notes that after the two-year stint they transferred to Fort Detrick, Maryland.

At its Fort Detrick facilities, the Army Chemical Corps had Biosafety Level 4 capabilities (the top designation which allows for the study of highly infectious, non-curable human diseases) and studied biological warfare until the U.S. discontinued such programs in 1969 in the Nixon administration.

Exactly what, if anything, the Army Chemical Corps did on Plum Island during those two years is unknown.

“To this day, little of that documentation has been declassified and some of it has been destroyed,” Folk and her coauthors write. But Folk and most credible sources say the Army’s program on Plum Island never had time to get off the ground.

Nevertheless, the Army’s brief and, by all accounts, uneventful stay on the island has inspired decades’ worth of conspiracy theories and led to many shaking heads and shrugged shoulders from former workers at Plum Island who are tired of answering questions about chemical warfare work that the Plum Island Animal Disease Center was never a part of.

The focus on conspiracies also distracts from the important and sometimes dangerous work that is actually taking place at the facility to this day.


Far more than just providing open space, Plum Island serves as an important wildlife refuge, the loss of which could be devastating, preservationists say. Thirteen different at-risk bird species have been found breeding there, 200 bird species overall have been detected and it has the largest documented seal haul-out site in New York state, says Matthew Schlesinger, Ph.D. and chief zoologist at the New York Natural Heritage Program, who recently conducted a year-long comprehensive field survey of the island.

With proper management and removal of invasive species, Schlesinger believes rare reptiles and amphibians could return and species such as the river otter could be reintroduced. Though the lab facility only occupies a small portion of the island, Schlesinger says the human impact is not limited to that area. “It’s not fair to call [Plum Island] pristine or undisturbed. It has a long history of human use, especially its interior ecosystem,” he said. “But it’s still 600 some acres of the island [that] are not developed.”

These natural resources, along with cultural ones — the island’s historic lighthouse and the remains of Fort Terry — are why Cryder and Turner say the decision to sell the island was so shortsighted. They also say it was unusual.

“When government surplus property becomes available for sale, the normal process is that the property will first be offered to sister agencies in the federal government,” Cryder says. “If a sister agency in the federal government doesn’t want it, then the states would get an opportunity. If the state of New York didn’t want it then it goes to a municipality. If the municipality doesn’t want it, then non-government organizations, for example, like conservation organizations, would have a crack at it.”

Conservationists would like to see the island turned into some type of preserve, possibly even a national park. Ideally, some would like to see the labs converted into a research facility operated in collaboration between Connecticut and New York universities.

Before any of that becomes a possibility, the island’s sale to a private company has to be prevented. Conservation efforts have garnered bipartisan support in Connecticut and Long Island. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican congressman from New York, and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, have both supported legislation to stop the sale.

“Allowing private developers to rip it apart and destroy the habitat of birds and other wildlife would be absolutely a desecration and disrespect for an environmental resource,” Blumenthal says.

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One of the many images from Robert Lorenz’s photo project showing the mostly unspoiled beauty of Plum Island.

 

Despite this support, bills to repeal the act mandating the island’s sale have failed in two successive sessions of Congress.

Blumenthal believes this year might finally bring a repeal. “I’m very optimistic about the island’s future and I’m hopeful that my colleagues will understand the need for repealing the Plum Island mandate, and [that] it should not be sold to the highest bidder,” he says.

Even if these efforts in Congress are unsuccessful, the island’s development is far from a foregone conclusion.

The Plum Island facilities had never been zoned by the town of Southold, New York, where the island is technically located. The local community wanted no part of the type of high-density condo or hotel development being talked about on the island.

With support from the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, the town enacted new zoning laws in 2013 that took the roughly 80 percent of the island that is not part of the lab facility and created a conservation district that can’t be developed. The town also created a research district on the footprint of the lab facility that cannot be expanded.

The sale price envisioned for the island was in the hundreds of millions, but now Cryder says, “We don’t have a firm appraisal of what the value is with the new zoning, but it’s thought it might be between $30 and $40 million. So now the math has changed.”

Cryder cautions that the battle is not necessarily won.

“Unfortunately we’ve seen too many occasions where deep-pocketed developers can outlast shallow-pocketed towns and ultimately push to get new zoning in place,” he says. “So although it’s a safety net with the new zoning, it’s not the ultimate safety net. And who knows, the progressive leadership in Southold could change in the future; there could be new leadership that allows zoning changes.”

Around the time the new zoning went into effect, one well-known, deep-pocketed developer expressed interest in the island, shortly before he decided to run for president.


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Plum Island's research facilities.

Plum Island Animal Disease Center is designed to make “sure that we have the best quality and most affordable food, and right now our food is probably the cheapest in the world as far as cost per person,” says John Verrico, chief of media relations for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (the facility fell under the auspices of Homeland Security after 9/11).

To that end, a variety of exotic animal diseases are studied and veterinarians from across the country train to recognize the signs and symptoms of foreign diseases in American livestock. Far from being secret, Verrico says all the work that goes on there is published in various peer-reviewed scientific journals and is presented at scientific conferences. “Nothing is classified,” he says. Last year 34 scientific publications were authored or coauthored by scientists from the facility.

The diseases that threaten farm animals, including classical swine fever, African swine fever and, perhaps most importantly, foot-and-mouth disease, are the focus of the research that takes place there.

Foot-and-mouth disease, also called hoof-and-mouth disease, is a virus that affects cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and other animals, but not humans. It causes a fever followed by blisters inside the mouth and feet, and though it often does not kill the animals, the slow-moving, highly contagious disease wreaks havoc on food supplies. The facility at Plum Island was partially inspired by a devastating foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Mexico in the 1940s, and in the early 2000s an outbreak in Europe highlighted the continued dangers of the disease.

In an ongoing effort, Plum Island scientists have done pioneering work to develop a cost-effective and reliable foot-and-mouth vaccine. (Like the flu, foot-and-mouth is difficult to vaccinate for because each vaccination only protects against specific strains.)

Other animals, such as horses and ticks, have at times been studied on the island, but the focus is on cattle, pigs and other farm animals that are regularly eaten in the U.S.

Animals studied on Plum Island never leave. After being studied they are euthanized and incinerated.

Douglas Gregg, a veterinarian and diagnostic pathologist who worked on Plum Island from 1976 until 2007, says intense safety precautions are taken on the island. Workers dealing with infected animals shower frequently. Humans are not susceptible to the diseases studied at Plum Island, but the precautions are necessary to protect animals.

“Conceivably, you could carry out viruses in your nose,” Gregg says.

Protocol called for employees to work with unaffected animals first, then animals infected with progressively more dangerous diseases. At the top of this infection food chain was foot-and-mouth disease. Once workers handled animals infected with foot-and-mouth, they would not handle any other animals that day.

Despite these precautions, mistakes were made.

In September 1978, animal-care workers began to notice symptoms that looked suspiciously like foot-and-mouth disease in animals kept outdoors on the island. These animals had not, in theory, been exposed to the disease. Something was very wrong.


By October 2013, Plum Island had caught Trump’s eye. He thought the lab could be converted to a one-of-a-kind island golf course.

“It would be a really beautiful, world-class golf course,” he told Newsday. “It would be a low-key and beautiful use for the area.”

At that time, Trump’s representatives reached out to Turner. True to form, the reality TV star wanted to make a deal.

They wanted to know “what we would be willing to support potentially, if he was to buy the island. That was a fairly short conversation,” Turner says. “The coalition made the unanimous determination that we didn’t want to engage in any further consideration of the idea of working with him [and] that it was much more valuable and much more consistent with our vision to try and get Congress to overturn the original act.”

Scott Russell, Southold’s town supervisor, also heard from a Trump representative who expressed interest in the island.

“I told him, ‘Well, look, the zoning is in place and unless Mr. Trump wants to get involved in the world of preservation and biotech research, none of what he wants to do there is permitted by town code,’ ” Russell says.

Russell never heard from the representative again, but says, “After Trump won the election there was speculation out here that he was going to try to have the island zoning overturned. I never found that to be a reasonable concern. I think he’s got plenty of interests in the world that he doesn’t have to really focus on Plum Island.”

When asked about Trump’s interest, Blumenthal, who has sometimes been the subject of Trump’s criticism on Twitter, says, “I’ve never heard or seen Donald Trump mention Plum Island. It would be a natural because it would be a prime target for his development, but I’m unaware of any development by Donald Trump.”

Even in the highly unlikely event that Plum Island once more arrived on now-President Trump’s radar, his authority would be limited, Russell says.

“Every level of court, including the federal level, has always recognized the ultimate authority to zoning rests with the town. So we’re confident that any challenges to zoning down the road, we’d be successful. However, those challenges would come at considerable cost,” Russell says.

More troublingly, zoning laws can change at any time. “Our zoning, in and of itself, doesn’t ensure the long-term operation of a facility or the management of the island. It’s not enough to preserve Plum Island. You need a commitment to good stewardship and management of that island.”

In the hopes of garnering more lasting protection of the island, the Preserve Plum Island Coalition began to explore options outside of local or federal governments.

In 2016, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound and six other organizations and individuals filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security and General Services Administration to prevent the sale of the island. The case is ongoing.


In September 1978 tests confirmed that there was a foot-and-mouth outbreak on Plum Island. Emergency protocols kicked in and containment efforts were swift and efficient.

All the animals on the island — approximately 200 cattle, pigs and sheep — were killed. The Department of Agriculture dispatched inspectors to Long Island dairy farms to ensure infections had not spread to the mainland. Fortunately, the disease never made it off the island.

An exhaustive investigation into what went wrong followed. Gregg says that, as is the case with many other disasters and accidents, five things had to go wrong all at once.

Before the outbreak there was a lot of construction on the island. The construction led to animals being delivered to the lab via a different route than normal. In a break with procedure, the animal-care workers were not showering after delivering the animals to the lab. At the same time, “there was a big study going on and they were having to kill and incinerate a lot of animals at one time and the incinerator was overheating. Some workers complained to the engineering people, and the engineering people adjusted the air supply to the incinerator which is normally under the most negative pressure anywhere in the building. They gave them a little more air and unfortunately [the air pressure] became positive.”

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The research center on Plum Island studies the world’s most dangerous animal diseases, including swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease.

Air now was capable of escaping the incinerator area and flowing over the area where the workers were delivering animals. “Those workers were unknowingly exposed to a plume of virus coming from the incinerator area, and they carried it back to the normal animals and infected at least one or two, and that started the outbreak,” Gregg says.

Procedures have since been updated at the island and the facility’s animals are no longer kept outdoors. There has not been a foot-and-mouth outbreak since.

In 1990 the island began running a ferry to Connecticut. Soon, half the workforce would be based here.

Today the ferry leaves multiple times a day from Harbor One Marina in Old Saybrook. First Selectman Carl Fortuna Jr. says the 200 workers who take the ferry to Plum Island from Connecticut are a mix of Old Saybrook residents and commuters from nearby Connecticut towns. If the jobs are lost when the island closes, he says it will hurt the region. “I don’t know that it’s tremendously impactful, [but] it is still people who are losing their jobs in southeastern Connecticut where we struggle to replace jobs.”

Fortuna would like to see the jobs remain and the island be opened as a type of preserve, which he believes could be a small economic driver for the town and the region.

Bob Powitz of Old Saybrook was among those who came to Connecticut because of Plum Island, moving from Michigan to take the job as biological safety officer in 1992. He only lasted two years on the island. Though he loved the work, the 30- to 40-minute ferry ride each way was too much for him. “I don’t have sea legs,” he says.

But during his time on the island he gained an appreciation for it. “It’s rather a gorgeous island when you’re on it,” he says. He also had time to hear his fair share of false rumors. “There was always this mystic, mystic thing about Plum Island and any horrible disease that was on the mainland probably had to have [been] done by Plum Island, which is, of course, not so,” Powitz says.

Even some of the plausible-enough-sounding stories about the island are untrue, including stories about boaters fishing nearby and inadvertently landing on the island only to be met with armed guards with machine guns.

“There were no guns on the island ever since World War II or a little after,” Powitz says. “While I was there, I did a round of the island pretty well daily. I wanted to see animals like deer that swim across from Gardiners Island. I wanted to see what is on the island, and see if I can spot something. What animals come to the island. What animals are native to the island. What can we expect if there should be a breach of containment. So I drove around, and if I didn’t drive around nobody drove around, and I sure didn’t carry a gun.”


There are several elements to the complaint brought against the government regarding the sale of Plum Island.

“When the federal government goes to sell property they have to do what’s called an environmental impact statement,” Cryder says. “We came to a determination that they failed in many ways to adhere to what is required in an environmental impact statement.”

He adds, “Should the island go to a private entity, most likely a developer, they didn’t have plans to manage the endangered species on the island.”

Attorney Roger Reynolds, the legal director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, says that his organization also disputes what the act concerning the sale of the island actually requires. According to preservationists’ interpretation of the wording, only the small section of the island with the facility has to be sold.

“We do not believe that the statute required the sale of the rest of the island and it certainly didn’t require the sale to the highest bidder,” Reynolds says. “It just requires a sale. Therefore we believe they should liquidate and sell the Animal Disease Center and the assets related to that. They need to go through their normal process for the rest of the island. We think that normal process would result in conservation.”

Government attorneys moved to dismiss the case. “They argued we were not sufficiently injured and we don’t have the right to challenge the government’s actions in this case,” Reynolds says.

In January a judge rejected the government’s claim and allowed the case, which seeks an injunction against selling the land until an adequate environmental impact statement has been performed, to go forward.

“The court specifically held that members in our organization have a very concrete interest in making sure that there is an adequate review done before the island is sold,” Reynolds says. “[The court held] that it is an environmental asset that us and our members do appreciate. We fish around it, we enjoy the wildlife that the island supports, and by failing to do an appropriate environmental analysis that we would suffer a concrete injury.”

The government will have to answer the complaint filed, and Reynolds says, “Then we have to make our case before the judge and the federal government has to make its case as to why they should be allowed to sell it at this point, and then the judge will make a decision, and that can be anywhere from one to three years down the road.”


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Asked about the future of Plum Island and its potential sale, Verrico, the Homeland Security spokesperson, says, “What ultimately happens to the island, whatever happens to the real estate itself, is outside of anything I can talk about at this point because right now we don’t know. There’s pending litigation on it.”

Plum Island’s successor, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, is under construction on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kansas. It will be completed by 2022, Verrico says, and around that time operations will be transferred from Plum Island.

The Kansas facility will take the mantle from Plum Island as the only lab in the U.S. permitted to study foot-and-mouth disease and will have a biosafety level of 4, allowing researchers there to study large-animal diseases that are capable of infecting humans. Though there are other Biosafety Level 4 labs, this will be the only one with facilities designed to accommodate and study large farm animals, Verrico says.

Unlike Plum Island, it will also be on the mainland, which will save operating costs and which Verrico and other experts say won’t pose a containment problem.

“Biocontainment has advanced so much, we’re able to do the work in Kansas,” Verrico says.

Others are not so sure.

Gregg, the longtime Plum Island veterinarian, is among the skeptics.

“I think it’s a very bad idea. It’s been shown that almost every laboratory that has ever worked with foot-and-mouth disease has had an outbreak,” he says.

The Department of Homeland Security says that worries over an outbreak are unfounded. According to a Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate fact sheet, the most updated risk assessment for the facility “estimates the expected probability of an accidental release of viable Foot and Mouth Disease resulting in a subsequent outbreak during [its] 50-year operating lifetime is de minimis — approximately one tenth of one percent. This includes the likelihood of a catastrophic event like a tornado or earthquake.”

With Plum Island’s future still uncertain after a nearly decade-long preservation effort, a real estate listing for the island remains on the GSA government website. “Containing approximately 840 acres, the island boasts sandy shoreline, beautiful views and a harbor strategically situated to provide easy access from the Orient Point facility or elsewhere,” the listing states. “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.”

Gregg agrees with the rosy assessment of the island’s appearance offered in the listing. While he worked at the island, he says “everybody was quite proud of the fact that the island was a preserve of sorts outside of the laboratory.”

Every year, those who worked on the island and family members would gather for a beach day. It was the only time the beach got used. That’s a shame, Gregg says, as, much like other aspects of the island, the beach is truly one of a kind. “It’s a beautiful beach. It’s the best beach on Long Island, probably.”


This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. 

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The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University