- Jeff - I have seen some articles lately referring to
the Plum as a BSL 4 laboratory. It appears that Homeland "lack of"
Security has been able to sneak in the BSL 4 upgrade. So, the Plum is
a BSL4/BSL5. It has now been compared to the Ft. Detrick lab.
- What fools! Didn't anyone hear me or Mike Carroll or
any of the reporters who had been to the devil's own island and saw the
steel drums above ground in the dump oozing their infected contents??
- It almost makes me want to give up and simply hang the
sign "gone fishing." Problem is...the Long Island sound fishing
isn't so good anymore, and there are no more lobsters. If I went fishing,
I would probably simply fish out test tubes or Plum Island refuse.
- It is a monster island where animals check in but don't
- "Monster Island"
New York's Plum Island is a level-4 bioresearch facility.
What exactly is going on there?
By Alan Cabal
- I make it a rule to never ascribe malicious intent to
any occurrence that can be reasonably attributed to human stupidity. There
is no such thing as a completely fail-safe system; at least, none that
human ingenuity can devise. Likewise, I acknowledge the role of coincidence
in the course of human events. Synchronicity does not necessarily imply
a designing will. Shit happens, as they say.
- The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia is a classic
illustration of both of these principles: The shuttle is as close to a
fail-safe system as our species is capable of. No one at NASA wants to
lose an astronaut to an accident. The fact that it broke up over Palestine,
TX, while carrying an Israeli war hero is simply a coincidence. It was
not brought down by a stone-throwing child, an errant kite or a suicide
bomber. There are those who see the Hand of God in coincidences such as
this. I am not one of those people.
- That said, I do tend to agree with the ancient Greeks
that hubris leads inevitably to a correction of some sort. As hubris has
become as ubiquitous as obesity in America lately, I try not to concern
myself too much with it. Inasmuch as I can, I keep my concerns local.
- And locally, there is no more terrifying example of hubris
than the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center.
- Located just two miles off the tip of Long Island and
six miles from the Connecticut coastline, Plum Island is home to a Bio-Safety
Level 4 (BSL-4) research facility. The only comparable government facilities
in the country are the United States Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, MD,
and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Plum Island
is specifically engaged in the study of zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases
are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans, like West
Nile, like Lyme disease. Like Ebola.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture established the research
facility there after acquiring the 840-acre island from the military at
the end of World War II. The initial charter from Congress mandated the
study of animal diseases, particularly foot-and-mouth disease, with an
eye toward eradicating these maladies from the nation's livestock. It seemed
an ideal location for such an endeavor: prevailing winds, after all, blow
out to sea.
- In 1954, the research took a more aggressive turn, with
scientists looking to cook up ways to inflict damage on Soviet livestock.
The Cuban government alleges that in the 1960s and 70s, bioweapons developed
at Plum were deployed against Cuban agriculture, targeting pork, tobacco
and sugar cane. Back in 1999, Floyd P. Horn, administrator of the Agriculture
Research Service, persuaded President Clinton to include Plum Island in
his expanded bioterrorism program based on the possibility of a biological
attack on the nation's agricultural base. Last year the administration
of the island's research facilities was transferred from USDA to the Department
of Homeland Security.
- The 200-odd employees do not live on the island; they
commute from their homes in Connecticut and Long Island. The facility is
only accessible by government ferry, and local sailors who have strayed
too close have reported being warned off in no uncertain terms by armed
military personnel. The diseases being researched do not live exclusively
under glass"there are quite a number of infected live animals for
study there. Some of these diseases have an incubation period extending
- Which means that it is entirely possible for a researcher
to be unknowingly infected on a Friday and then spend the weekend cheerfully
spreading some hideous plague from the Hamptons to Tribeca. The government
claims that there has only been one outbreak on the island"foot-and-mouth
in 1978"which they contained by killing all the livestock. They further
maintain that there has never been a leak to the mainland. Apparently the
first appearance of what we now call Lyme disease a mere 13 miles northeast
of the facility falls under the category of coincidence, as does the mysterious
and still unexplained appearance of West Nile virus in Long Island and
New York City.
- Coincidences, it seems, abound at Plum.
- Until 1991, all of the employees were federal. During
1991 and ,92, the workforce bifurcated, with many of the jobs being turned
over to the private sector, which naturally led to a simmering resentment
in the ranks. On August 13, 2002, the resentment came to a full boil and
a strike was called: 76 members of the International Union of Operating
Engineers walked out at midnight after negotiations on wages and benefits
broke down. The union members, employed by a government subcontractor,
LB&B Associates, headquartered in Columbia, MD, were responsible for
essential support services such as decontamination, waste-water treatment,
keeping the generators in working order and other maintenance and safety-oriented
occupations. For the duration of the strike, temps were brought in to replace
them, the sentinels and technicians of the island's infrastructure.
- By the end of that month, the FBI had been called to
the island to investigate allegations of sabotage. It seems that the water
pressure on the island fell precipitously, disabling decontamination facilities
and the necropsy rooms used to examine dead animals. The union blamed the
problem on the inexperienced temporary replacement workers, suggesting
that they had not been adequately screened and lacked the training to properly
maintain the essential daily activity of the island, let alone handle an
emergency. Jacob Bunch, a spokesman for LB&B, refused to comment on
the FBI investigation and responded to a New York Times reporter's query
about the replacement workers by stating that "In terms of training,
I will tell you that people are well trained or they wouldn,t be there.
I am not going to get into how they are trained." He flatly refused
to discuss the issue of security clearances.
- The strike and the FBI investigation drew unwanted attention
to the island. Local residents in Connecticut and Long Island have long
harbored suspicions about the nature of the research being done on "Mystery
Island," as some call it. One local politician was quoted as saying,
"I have gotten calls from constituents asking if it is safe. People
worry about Plum Island under routine circumstances, so you can expect
that they worry more when circumstances are as unusual as these."
- Press requests to visit the island were denied by both
the FBI and the USDA, but one union official claimed to have received a
frantic call from one of the replacement workers. As he put it, "They
were sleeping on cots, working 12- hour shifts and not being able to make
calls off the island. He described their condition as being held captive."
The chief operating officer of LB&B, Ed Brandon, scoffed at the report,
saying that the worker in question had already left the island and that
everything was under control and running smoothly.
- As a result of the FBI investigation, one of the strikers,
Mark J. DePonte, pleaded guilty to tampering with government property.
Coincidentally, in October a 600-gallon container of liquid nitrogen somehow
managed to tumble off the rear of one of the island's ferries. Shortly
thereafter, it was revealed that at least one of the replacement workers
had an arrest record.
- During the fifth month of the strike, a three-hour power
outage renewed public interest in the island. It certainly piqued my interest.
On that day, I could not help but fixate on Stephen King's The Stand and
Larry Underwood's trek through a sea of corpses in the Lincoln Tunnel,
clawing his way out to Jersey. I found the failure of all three of the
island's backup generators particularly provocative. Jovial corporate gasbag
Ed Brandon had nothing to say about the inability of the replacement workers
to operate the generators after five months on the job, and his erstwhile
associate Jacob Bunch was equally dumbstruck.
- I packed up the car, scored some weed, picked up my girlfriend
and headed to the Jersey Shore, just to be on the safe side. Coincidence
and stupidity will kill you just as dead as conspiracy and evil genius,
if the wind is right, so we holed up in a motel in Ocean City and followed
the story from there.
- The only reason the incident went public at all was that
one of the replacement workers basically flipped a gasket and called Hillary
Clinton's office, spilling the beans on the power failure to one of her
staffers. The worker stated that, "The reason I am coming forward
is because what I have seen at the center is really out of hand and something
needs to be done about it."
- And just like that, the possibility of disaster was in
- Without power, the air filtration systems are inoperable.
Without power, decontamination procedures break down. Without power, the
seals in the pressurized airlock doors start to deflate. According to one
report, workers were desperately sealing the doors with duct tape.
- My girlfriend and I stayed in Ocean City for a few days,
walking the deserted frozen boardwalk together and monitoring the news
for any signs of an incipient human die-off in New York. The most frightening
book I have ever read is Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, a comprehensive
overview of emerging rain-forest viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
I was so badly rattled that I actually put the book down about three-quarters
of the way through. Sitting down there at the Jersey Shore, watching the
whitecaps roll in through the desolate frozen darkness on the longest night
of the year, it was all too easy to imagine Manhattan in the throes of
a deadly epidemic triggered by some half-wit scab's inability to figure
out the basics of generator maintenance and operation.
- I took an inventory of the worst zoonotic plagues I could
think of: Nipah virus, anthrax, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, Hanta virus"
- Hanta, I recalled, is transmitted in rodent feces. There
was an outbreak in the Four Corners area in the southwest, back in the
early 90s. The vector? Pinola nuts contaminated by rat shit.
- I reflected on the mother of all plagues, the incomparable
Ebola virus, the deadliest strain of which, Ebola Zaire, has a 90 percent
kill rate. Transmission is ridiculously easy: The victim starts sneezing
at a certain point early in the infection, and the sneeze contains aerosolized
droplets of infected blood. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-bang, ba-da-boom"you,ve
got it. In about 10 days, you bleed out and die as your cardio-vascular
system Well, your cardio-vascular system just sort of melts. Ebola Zaire
would burn through this city like a fire in a cardboard factory.
- Up in New Haven, CT, in 1994, a worker at Yale University's
Arbovirus Laboratory became infected with Sabia virus, went home, then
took a little jaunt to Boston, where it became apparent to him that his
symptoms were serious. More recently, in February of this year, a Fort
Detrick researcher inadvertently stuck herself with a needle containing
one of the three known Ebola variants. None of the reports of the incident
specified which strain, but one can only assume it was the relatively benign
Ebola Reston, as she was permitted to go home and gather some "necessities"
before being placed in quarantine the next day. She was released from quarantine
on March 3.
- Sometimes you get lucky.
- The research at Plum Island has taken some very alarming
turns. In 2001, the New York Times revealed the existence of the Defense
Department's "Project Jefferson," an effort to develop a vaccine-resistant
form of anthrax. The Pentagon responded to the story by asserting that
the project would be completed and the results classified.
- Last year, a St. Louis University virologist by the name
of Mark Buller revealed in a characteristically dry academic report that
he was tinkering with a more lethal form of mousepox, a relative of smallpox,
and intended to extend this work to cowpox, which can infect humans. Buller's
intent is to devise countermeasures against making pox viruses more lethal,
but the central conundrum of bioweaponry defense research is that, by necessity,
it entails offensive bioweaponry research.
- For his part, Buller is aware of the problem. "When
you have thrown a lot of money at it," he told Mother Jones magazine,
"people start to think very hard about what is possible, losing sight
of what is practical."
- Problem is, this research doesn,t take place in a vacuum.
These researchers are academics"they publish. As the hackers have
been telling us for three decades, information wants to be free. So, creating
increasingly deadly bioweapons in order to determine how they can be thwarted
generates an endless spiral of increasingly potent plagues that must inevitably
succumb to that most familiar and unforgiving of universal principles,
- A lot of people in the know are sounding alarms about
this. Richard Ebright, lab director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology
at Rutgers University, is quoted by Michael Scherer in this month's Mother
Jones as saying, "That is work that creates a new vulnerability for
the United States and the world. It's like the National Institute of Health
was funding a research and development arm of Al Qaeda." Scherer also
points out that the government is going full speed ahead with this sort
of thing, doubling the Pentagon budget for chemical/biological warfare
and pouring up to $10 billion into bioweaponry projects alone.
- We are knee-deep in a new arms race, far more terrifying
than anything the nukes race had to offer. Accidents happened with our
nuclear launch protocols during the Cold War"we came close, far too
close, on several occasions"and it's far easier to accidentally release
a tick or a mosquito into the environment, or scratch oneself with an infected
needle, than it is to inadvertently launch a missile.
- Plum Island is 136 miles from the city, as the crow flies.
If that crow should happen to land there briefly, perhaps to snack on a
tempting bit of carrion, there is a realistic chance that the crow might
then become patient zero, carrying back with it some unwholesome and unwelcome
souvenir. Or consider the disgruntled, overworked generator mechanic suffering
under the burden of a difficult divorce compounded by a bad reaction to
Zoloft who goes postal"on a whole new level. Or maybe a series of
unfortunate, coincidental and entirely benign failures will pile up like
SUVs on black ice.
- The list of possibilities for disaster goes on and on.
I prefer not to be in close proximity to people who insist on flouting
Murphy's Law, especially when they,re toying around with what we euphemistically
refer to these days as Weapons of Mass Destruction. It's like drinking
in a cop bar.
- There's been a lot of blather and hoo-hah in the news
around here lately that New Yorkers are unprepared for another major disaster
along the lines of the Sept. 11 attacks. Very few businesses have established
any kind of emergency preparedness drills or protocols, and the average
citizen seems to be living in some hideously banal postmodern fog of confusion
and denial. A friend of mine up in Inwood bought an ultralight kayak, figuring
to haul it down to the estuary there and paddle away to Jersey if and when
the bodies start piling up.
- Even if nothing ever happens, it's a great toy in the
- For more on Plum Island, see Jim Knipfel's review of
Michael Christopher Carroll's Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's
Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, p. 40.
- Patricia A. Doyle, PhD
- Please visit my "Emerging
Diseases" message board.
- Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa
- Go with God and in Good Health