Congressman Lee Zeldin, a conservative Republican tightly allied with President Trump, and a grouping of environmentalists, are pushing to block the U.S. plan to sell off Plum Island where in the 1950s the federal government established a program to develop biological warfare to be used against food animals in the Soviet Union.
Those activities and subsequent government research when the island was transferred from the military to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study foreign animal diseases while also conducting “defensive” biological warfare work has left a legacy of contamination on the 843-acre island just off Orient Point on the eastern end of Long Island.
After 9/11 Plum Island was transferred again, this time to the Department of Homeland Security and the government subsequently began the process of selling it.
Indeed, in 2013 real estate developer Trump announced he wanted to buy it and develop a “really beautiful, world-class golf course on it.”
Zeldin, who represents eastern Long Island and in whose district Plum Island is located, has introduced a bill to preserve most of the island while providing for “continued research” at it. This has come despite the warning of Michael Carroll, author of a best-selling book about government activities on Plum Island causing widespread pollution on it, and a recent report by a private Long Island consulting firm about environmental issues on the island.
“The island is an environmental disaster,” says Carroll, author of “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory.”
“You can’t let anybody on it,” he says. “There is contamination all over the island” and thus it needs to be “forsaken.” As for Lab 257, an early laboratory on the island, “They can’t get that building clean.”
The environmental report, done last year by Dermody Consulting of Center Moriches, Long Island notes that among other things “waste materials from PIADC [Plum Island Animal Disease Center] operations were buried in numerous locations throughout the island” and, as for Lab 257, it cites information “a former employee at the PIADC” gave to Save the Sound—the Connecticut-based organization which commissioned the report—that it “was sealed with contamination remaining in place.”
Plum Island was developed in the early 1950s by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps to use animal diseases to wage biological warfare. Newsday investigative reporter John McDonald in 1993 reported: “A 1950s military plan to cripple the Soviet economy by killing horses, cattle and swine called for making biological warfare weapons out of exotic animal diseases at a Plum Island laboratory, now-declassified Army records reveal.” A facsimile of one of the Army records, dated 1951, documenting this mission covered the front page of Newsday.
The article went on: “Documents and interviews disclose for the first time what officials have denied for years: that the mysterious and closely guarded animal lab off the East End of Long Island was originally designed to conduct top-secret research into replicating viruses that could be used to destroy enemy livestock.”
In 1954 Plum Island was turned over to the Department of Agriculture because, according to research conducted in the National Archives in Washington by Carroll, an attorney, the U.S. military became concerned about having to feed millions of people in the Soviet Union if it destroyed food animals. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff “found that a war with the U.S.S.R. would best be fought with conventional and nuclear means,” says his book.
Research into foreign animal diseases—to prevent their spread to the U.S.—became the mission on Plum Island, although Department of Agriculture officials have also acknowledged that “defensive” biological warfare research is done there, too.
The federal government has decided to close down its Plum Island Animal Disease Center and shift the research done at it to a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas which is to function at the government’s highest safety level, Biosafety Level-4—with a special focus, says the government, on the specter of terrorists seeking to poison U.S. animals.
No matter what agency has been in charge at Plum Island, until recent decades all the waste generated at it stayed there—buried in numerous locations or incinerated. The government feared, until recent times, germs getting off the island in waste.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been concerned about what he has called “the island of secrets.” The Cuomo family is quite familiar with Plum Island with Carroll having been a colleague of Andrew’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, at a Manhattan law firm. The elder Cuomo provided an endorsement of “Lab 257” on its jacket describing it as “a carefully researched, chilling expose of a potential catastrophe.” Andrew Cuomo has called for a “comprehensive investigation” of the island by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Save the Sound, with its headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut, in a recent press release quotes Peter Dermody, president of Dermody Consulting, as saying, “Homeland Security personnel have folded their arms and delayed performing investigations required by New York State regulations and guidelines.” Save the Sound says “everyone wants Plum Island cleaned up.”
The big question: can it be?
Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Zeldin’s bill blocking the Plum Island sale, seeking preservation and providing for “continued research” at it—despite the shift of PIADC’s functions to Kansas. Government opens an office, starts a department and a vested interest is created that seeks to perpetuate itself. Will “continued research” generate new and more contamination?
A spokesperson for Zeldin says the congressman is “working hard to encourage his Senate colleagues to bring this legislation up for a vote in early 2018.” If it passes in the Senate, it would go to Trump to decide whether to sign or veto it.
Carroll’s “Lab 257” also documents a Nazi connection to the original establishment of a U.S. laboratory on Plum Island. According to the book, Erich Traub, a scientist who worked for the Third Reich doing biological warfare, was the force behind its founding.
The book relates how during World War II, “as lab chief of Insel Riems, a secret Nazi biological warfare laboratory on a crescent-shaped island in the Baltic Sea, Traub worked for Adolph Hitler’s second-in-charge, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, on live germ trials.”
The mission was to develop biological warfare to be directed against animals in the Soviet Union. This included infecting cattle and reindeer with foot-and-mouth disease.
“Ironically, Traub spent the prewar period of his scientific career on a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, perfecting his skills in viruses and bacteria under the tutelage of American experts before returning to Nazi Germany on the eve of war,” says “Lab 257.” While in the U.S. in the 1930s, too, relates the book, Traub was a member of the Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund which was involved in pro-Nazi rallies held weekly in Yaphank on Long Island.
With the end of the war, Traub came back to the U.S. under Project Paperclip, the U.S. government program under which Nazi scientists, such as Wernher von Braun, were brought to America.
“Traub’s detailed explanation of the secret operation on Insel Riems” given to officials at Fort Detrick in Maryland, the Army’s biological warfare headquarters, and to the CIA, “laid the groundwater for Fort Detrick’s offshore germ warfare animal disease lab on Plum Island,” says “Lab 257.” “Traub was a founding father.”
And Plum Island’s purpose, says the book, became what Insel Riems had been: to develop biological warfare to be directed against animals in the Soviet Union now that the Cold War and conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had begun.
“Lab 257” also maintains that there is a link between the Plum Island center and the emergence of Lyme disease, now an epidemic. It “suddenly surfaced” 10 miles from Plum Island “in Old Lyme, Connecticut in 1975.” Carroll cites years of experimentation with ticks on Plum Island and the possibility of an accidental or purposeful release.
“The tick is the perfect germ vector,” says “Lab 257,” “which is why it has long been fancied as a germ weapon by early biowarriors from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan to the Soviet Union and the United States.”
“A source who worked on Plum Island in the 1950s,” the book states, “recalls that animal handlers and a scientist released ticks outdoors on the island. ‘They called him the Nazi scientist, when they came in, in 1951 they were inoculating these ticks.
“Lab 257” goes on: “Dr. Traub’s World War II handiwork consisted of aerial virus sprays developed on Insel Riems and tested over occupied Russia, and of field work for Heinrich Himmler in Turkey. Indeed, his colleagues conducted bug trials by dropping live beetles from planes. An outdoor tick trial would have been de riguer for Erich Traub.”