As Infamous Germ-Research Lab Moves West, What Happens to Plum Island?

Homeland Security wants to sell the mysterious island to developers, but some lawmakers fear damage to the Long Island Sound’s ecology.

National Journal
Billy House
July 2, 2014, 9:46 a.m.

Plum Is­land has fas­cin­ated con­spir­acy the­or­ists for dec­ades. Weird and sin­is­ter spec­u­la­tion about the gov­ern­ment’s germ re­search on the 3-mile strip has spawned le­gends that only get bet­ter with age, like the al­leged post-World War II re­cruit­ment of Nazi sci­ent­ists to work there on a bio­lo­gic­al-weapons pro­gram, or the re­search con­duc­ted there that sup­posedly led to the spread of Lyme dis­ease.

But now, there’s a far dif­fer­ent type of con­tro­versy spread­ing over Plum Is­land: how to use it after the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment packs up the Na­tion­al Bio and Agro-De­fense Fa­cil­ity and moves west, to a new $1 bil­lion lab in Man­hat­tan, Kan.

Un­der a cur­rent budget-bal­an­cing plan, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in­tends to sell Plum Is­land to the highest bid­der, rais­ing an es­tim­ated $32.8 mil­lion to off­set a por­tion of the cost of the Kan­sas lab.

But on Wed­nes­day, a group of New York and Con­necti­c­ut mem­bers of Con­gress, joined by en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, launched an ef­fort to con­vince House and Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­at­ors to drop the sale.

These law­makers from the Long Is­land Sound re­gion — in­clud­ing Chuck Schu­mer and Kirsten Gil­librand of New York and Richard Blu­menth­al and Chris Murphy of Con­necti­c­ut, among oth­ers — ar­gue in a let­ter to their col­leagues that the en­vir­on­ment­al and eco­lo­gic­al value of the is­land ex­ceeds the es­tim­ated pro­ceeds that could be raised by selling it. In­stead, they want it turned over to the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice or the Fish and Wild­life Ser­vice.

“We need to pro­ceed very care­fully when con­sid­er­ing the fu­ture of this en­vir­on­ment­al and eco­lo­gic­al treas­ure,” said Rep. Rosa De­Lauro of Con­necti­c­ut. “We have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to en­sure the pro­tec­tion and pre­ser­va­tion of this na­tion­al treas­ure, not only for those liv­ing near their shores, but for their chil­dren and chil­dren’s chil­dren.”

Of course, there’s no dis­put­ing that Plum Is­land for years housed some of the most leth­al bac­teria known to hu­man­kind — or­gan­isms re­spons­ible for swine flu, foot-and-mouth dis­ease, and oth­er live­stock ail­ments. The George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion even ac­know­ledged in 2008 that — 20 years earli­er — there had been ac­ci­dents at the fa­cil­ity, in­clud­ing one in 1978 in­volving the re­lease of highly con­ta­gious foot-and-mouth dis­ease in­to the cattle-hold­ing pens on the is­land.

And the House and Sen­ate mem­bers ar­guing to keep Plum Is­land in fed­er­al gov­ern­ment hands ad­mit it might take mil­lions of dol­lars to re­medi­ate after dec­ades of germ-re­search use. But they ar­gue that “the en­vir­on­ment­al sig­ni­fic­ance of the Plum Is­land area can­not be over­stated.”

The gov­ern­ment’s own en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ments say that a vast num­ber of spe­cies could be im­pacted by de­vel­op­ment on Plum Is­land, in­clud­ing at least two en­dangered spe­cies, the pip­ing plover and the roseate tern. In ad­di­tion, the law­makers ar­gued that de­vel­op­ment of the is­land may af­fect the already en­dangered At­lantic rid­ley sea turtle and three oth­er spe­cies.

“From per­son­al vis­its, pho­tos, and con­ver­sa­tions with ex­perts, we know that the is­land is a crit­ic­al hab­it­at and a pristine land­scape that must be pro­tec­ted in per­petu­ity,” the law­makers wrote to their con­gres­sion­al col­leagues.

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