For years, plenty of wild rumors and conspiracy theories have swirled around an 840-acre (340-hectare) speck of land a mile-and-a-half off New York's Long Island, home to a high-security federal research facility that Internet-fueled urban legends have made into the East Coast's equivalent of Area 51. Some have speculated that animal-human hybrids and biological warfare weapons are being developed inside the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, opened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1950s and under the control of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since 2003.
"I've had questions about Nazi scientists, alien technology and genetically-modified monsters," says John Verrico, a spokesman for Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.
But inside the security fences and biocontainment area checkpoints (described in the unredacted parts of this 2007 government report), government researchers work to stave more tangible threats — foreign animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever, which have the potential to wreak havoc with the U.S. food supply if they ever spread across the nation's farms.
In the U.S., which hasn't had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929, an outbreak of the highly contagious affliction could cause "billions and billions of dollars" in economic losses, Verrico says, because infected farm animals would have to be culled from herds and destroyed. Meat exports would come to a halt until the disease was eradicated, and consumers might face shortages of meat and dairy products. Farmers who produce animal feed would be harmed as well. A 2001 outbreak in the U.K. cost that nation the equivalent of more than $10 billion, according to the BBC.
That longstanding danger led Congress to authorize the Department of Agriculture to create a laboratory to fight animal diseases back in the 1950s, with one major condition — the facility had to be located on an island, to reduce the danger of pathogens or infected animals escaping and spreading to farms, according to this September 1956 booklet. Plum Island, the site of the U.S. Army's Fort Terry from 1879 to 1948, fit that criteria.
A Super Prison for Deadly Animal Diseases
A 1971 New York Times article described the facility as a "Devil's Island for the deadliest animal disease germs known to man," and described the elaborate security measures. They included round-the-clock patrols along the island's perimeter (intended to warn away boaters who might be attracted by the pristine beaches), buildings with airlocks to keep bacteria and viruses from escaping, and holding tanks to sterilize the waste water from mandatory showers taken by staffers before leaving at the end of the work day. In part because of the risk of a terrorist attack on the facility, in 2003 it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, even though agriculture researchers continue to work there, and additional measures such as door sensors and alarms were added, as this 2007 Government Accountability Office report describes.
An al-Qaida operative who was arrested in 2008 in Afghanistan had a handwritten list of various potential targets in the U.S. that included Plum Island, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Despite all the security measures, the Plum Island facility doesn't work in secrecy. "We actually don't do any classified work at all," Verrico says. "Our scientists publish reports on everything we do."
Plum Island houses the only foot-and-mouth disease vaccine bank in North America, which maintains a variety of vaccines that have been developed to combat the more than 60 different strains of the disease. Those vaccines could be deployed in the event that the disease began to spread in the U.S., Canada or Mexico. "It's regularly updated," Verrico explains.
Additionally, if an animal becomes sick and develops suspicious lesions or other possible signs of the disease, tissue samples are sent to Plum Island for analysis, Verrico says. Veterinarians come to Plum Island for training.
Work at Plum Island was instrumental in the conquest of rinderpest, a deadly cattle disease that is one of the only the two diseases — smallpox is the other — that have been totally eradicated, Verico says.
Scheduled for Shutdown in 2023
Although the Plum Island facility and its 400-person workforce have been an important part of the nation's defenses against animal diseases for decades, it's scheduled to shut down by approximately 2023. It gradually will be replaced by the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a $1.25 billion project under construction in Manhattan, Kansas. That facility will be larger than Plum Island and be able to conduct more studies simultaneously. It also will have added layers of security to enable it to function as a level 4 laboratory, meaning that it will be able to study animal diseases that have the potential to be transmitted to humans. It will be the first large-animal facility capable of such research, Verrico says. Advances in security measures will make it unnecessary for it to be located offshore.
What will happen to Plum Island after the animal disease center shuts down isn't yet clear. The U.S. General Services Administration already has advertised the island and its buildings for sale, in keeping with a provision tucked into the 2009 economic stimulus package that requires it to be auctioned off to defray the construction cost of the Kansas facility and/or Homeland Security's new headquarters complex.
But local environmentalists don't want to see Plum Island turned into a waterfront housing development or golf resort. Because the island has been off-limits to development for so many years, much of it has reverted to its natural state and become a refuge for birds and animals, according to Chris Cryder, an outreach coordinator for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, composed of environmental organizations in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The coalition advocates setting aside 80 percent of the island as a preserve.
In the winters, for example, Plum Island is a haven for 600 harbor and gray seals, who migrate from Canada to forage for food there, Cryder says. It also provides habitat for avian species such as the piping plover and roseate tern. Over the past six decades, "there's been relatively little disturbance of nature because of the high security operation there," Cryder explains.
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2016, seeking to prevent the government from going ahead with a sale, on the grounds that it hadn't complied with requirements of various federal environmental laws. After GSA unsuccessfully sought to get the suit dismissed, the agency announced in August that it would hold off on the sale in order to prepare a new environmental impact statement to augment the review it had done in 2013. In an interview, Roger Reynolds, senior counsel for Connecticut Fund for the Environment, describes the initial study as "remarkably inadequate."