Preserving Plum Island?

Plum Island vor Long Island im Staat New York, image by Vereinigte Staaten.

Can Plum Island, an 843-acre island a mile and a half off the eastern end of Long Island—originally the site in the early 1950s of a U.S. Army laboratory with a mission to develop biological warfare to be used to poison livestock in the Soviet Union—be safely preserved as a “national monument” with public access.

That is being advocated by a grouping of environmentalists and Congressman Nick LaLota who has introduced a bill facilitating this. The district of the Long Island, New York Republican includes Plum Island.

But as an official of the National Park Service testified last month at a hearing in Washington on LaLota’s measure: “The department appreciates the bill’s intent to increase public access to and to protect Plum Island’s natural and cultural heritage, and we support that goal. However, given the multiple hazards to human health and safety that may exist, we have serious concerns about the bill’s requirements that the department assume administrative jurisdiction over the island.”

Michael T. Reynolds, deputy director for Congressional Relations of the National Park Service, a part of the Department of Interior, continued: “Plum Island’s long history of serving as a site for military operations and animal pathogen research has led to a series of ongoing environmental challenges.”

He said the Plum Island Animal Disease Center’s “biocontainment facilities must be decontaminated.” He said an environmental assessment by the Department of Homeland Security “recommends that a decontamination process, complete validation testing, and soil testing be conducted… Decontamination will include methods such as scrubbing, liquid cleaning, thermal disinfection via autoclaves, chemical disinfection, and fumigation. As a result of the use of cleaning chemicals such as formaldehyde and the thermal disinfection of nearly all equipment within the facility, once usable infrastructure at PIADC will be rendered unsafe for human occupation until this costly decontamination work can be completed.”

Also, “A number of waste management areas must be remediated,” Reynolds said. He said the environmental assessment notes that this includes “numerous sites of concern, including removing buried waste, capping contaminated areas, and conducting soil and groundwater monitoring. However, 10 additional sites of concern require further action.”

“In addition,” said Reynolds, “the Department foresees budgetary challenges—and potentially further environmental concerns—involved with rehabilitating or demolishing aging buildings, maintaining a costly marine transportation system, and upgrading island infrastructure to accommodate use in a manner that is safe and accessible for employees and the public.”

Michael Carroll, author of the New York Times best­-selling book “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory,” has long said Plum Island can never be made safe for the public. “The island is an environmental disaster,” says Carroll. “You can’t let anybody on it…There is contamination all over the island” and thus it needs to be “forsaken.”

Up until recent decades all waste generated by the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and from prior animal disease work stayed on the island. No waste was removed, including animal remains. Some of it was incinerated, much of it buried on the island.

Reporting in 1993 how Plum Island was the U.S. Army site with a Cold War mission of developing biological warfare to be used against livestock in the Soviet Union was John McDonald, an investigative reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “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,” he wote. A facsimile of one of the Army records documenting the mission covered the front page of Newsday. There was an extensive article headlined “Plum Island’s Shadowy Past.”

Carroll’s book discloses, based on research by Carroll, an attorney, in the National Archives in Washington, 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 USSR would best be fought with conventional and nuclear means,” he relates in “Lab 257.”

Thus, the island was turned over to the Department of Agriculture to conduct research into foreign animal diseases, although department officials have acknowledged doing “defensive” biological warfare research on it, too.

Decades later, after the 9-11 attack, Plum Island was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security out of concern about its vulnerability and access by terrorists seeking disease agents it experimented with, some of which cross over to people. The island, a mile and a half off Orient Point at the end of the North Fork of Long Island, sits along a major water route between Long Island and Connecticut.

The U.S. thereafter decided to shut down its Plum Island Animal Disease Center and shift operations to a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility that is to function at the government’s highest safety level, BioSafety Level 4. Built at a cost of $1.25 billion in Kansas, it opened last year.

With operations on Plum Island being made extraneous, the government first considered selling it for private use. Donald Trump, in 2013 before becoming president, was interested in constructing “a world-class golf course” on it. LaLota’s predecessor in Congress, Lee Zeldin of Shirley, also a Republican, and some environmentalists, opposed a sale and Zeldin introduced a bill that was enacted to keep the island in government hands and preserve it. LaLota’s measure advances that.

Carroll’s “Lab 257” documents a Nazi connection to the establishment of the Army laboratory on Plum Island. According to his book, Erich Traub, a scientist who worked for the Third Reich doing biological warfare, was a “founding father.”

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,” states “Lab 257.”

Its objective was developing biological warfare to be directed against animals in the Soviet Union.

“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 at Camp Siegfried in Yaphank on Long Island, owned by the German American Bund.

With the end of the war, Traub came back to the United States under Operation Paperclip, a secret program under which more than 1,600 Nazi scientists and engineers, including Wernher von Braun, were brought to the U.S.

“Traub’s detailed explanation of the secret operation on Insel Riems” given to officials at Fort Detrick in Maryland, the Army’s chemical and 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.” And Plum Island’s purpose, writes Carroll, became what Insel Riems had been: to develop biological warfare to be directed against animals in the Soviet Union with the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union having begun.

“Lab 257” also maintains that there is a link between the Plum Island center and the emergence of Lyme disease. 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…”

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.