08/17/14 8:00am
08/17/2014 8:00 AM
JULIE LANE PHOTO | The Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, is in disrepair with no government money to restore it. Stories persist that it’s haunted.

The Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, is in disrepair with no government money to restore it. Stories persist that it’s haunted. (Credit: Julie Lane)

Tell people you’re visiting Plum Island and be prepared for a litany of the perils in store for you. You’ll be reminded of persistent rumors springing from dire biological experiments that have taken place there and that still might be going on.

Just one,“How interesting” would have been nice. (more…)

07/29/14 6:00am
07/29/2014 6:00 AM

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A group of Congressional representatives led by Tim Bishop of Southampton is calling on the federal government not to sell Plum Island, as it plans, but to put it under the jurisdiction of a “federal agency such as the U.S. National Park Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” In their June 30 letter to the House and Senate appropriation committees, the representatives says they “remain deeply concerned” about the “ecological value” of Plum Island.  (more…)

09/18/13 4:03pm
09/18/2013 4:03 PM
TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | A bird's eye view of Plum Island.

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | A bird’s eye view of Plum Island.

Lawmakers from New York, and one more from Connecticut, pitched a plea to the federal government yesterday, asking the head of the entity in charge of selling Plum Island to sign an executive order to block the island’s sale.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) joined Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Vernon) in calling for the order, writing that – considering recent zoning restrictions placed on the island by Southold Town leaders – a sale “would do virtually nothing to offset the cost” of a National Bio and Agro Defense Facility, which is slated to be constructed in Kansas. Costs of the new facility have reportedly ballooned to $1.2 billion, up from an original $450 million estimation.

At the end of August, the Southold Town Board voted unanimously to split the 850-acre island into three parcels, essentially keeping its existing uses as a research facility while conserving the majority of the untouched island. Also at the end of August, the federal government reaffirmed its decision to move its Animal Disease Research Facility to Kansas in a formal record of decision, also confirming its decision to sell the land to help defray new construction costs.

Despite the zoning restrictions, a Bishop spokesman clarified on Wednesday that while the congressman is not opposed to the sale of someone who would operate it as such, a high bidder with deep pockets could always challenge the town, possibly resulting in an outcome beside what’s currently in mind.

“If it’s sold to the highest bidder, potentially they could challenge the zoning instituted by Southold Town,” said Oliver Longwell, a Bishop spokesman. “It’s not a likelihood, but it’s a possibility.

“This is a way to get the administration on record about whether they believe a public sale is required by law, as the General Services Administration is contemplating now.”

Supervisor Scott Russell said he supported the letter to the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Burwell, adding that the notions of selling the island and opening a new animal research facility should not be one in the same.

“The issue of Plum Island and its future should be separate and distinct from the construction of the NBAF facility,” Russell said. The construction of the Kansas lab, he said, “doesn’t mean NBAF has to pursue all research under that one roof.”

09/06/13 10:00am
09/06/2013 10:00 AM

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Dr. Larry Barrett, director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, speaks with reporters during a media tour of the island Aug. 25.

Every morning, Dr. Larry Barrett rushes to Orient to catch a boat to work.

Once he passes through security, he boards the Plum Island Ferry for a 20-minute ride to his job as director of the island’s animal disease research center.

While director is Dr. Barrett’s title with the federal lab, he goes by another unofficial title to support the many responsibilities associated with his job.

Larry Barrett is the island’s self-proclaimed mayor.

“I’m the mayor in the sense that I’m the face of Plum Island,” he said following a recent media tour of the lab.

As director, Dr. Barrett, who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Oklahoma State University, oversees everything from the delivery of rare and highly contagious livestock specimens to the island’s 24-hour ferry service schedule.

“I may start the day at an operational meeting or we may be talking about special agents like foot-and-mouth disease,” he said.

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which has been housed on the 840-acre island since 1954, is a village in its own right.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF PLUM ISLAND

The island has its own wastewater treatment plant, electric station and roadways — and Dr. Barrett is responsible for making sure everything operates smoothly at the center, which employees nearly 400 people.

Plum Island even has its own fire department. Staffed with 60 trained firefighters, the men and woman are volunteers with credentials at the lab, Dr. Barrett said.

Much of Dr. Barrett’s job, which he has held since Sept. 6, 2007, involves improving the public’s perceptions of the lab, where scientists study strains of foreign livestock disease with the goal of protecting America’s food supply from various illnesses that run rampant among cattle, pigs, horses and goats in other countries.

Related: Feds push ahead for auction sale

The animal disease lab has been at the heart of a number of conspiracy theories, most notably for spawning mutant creatures like the Montauk Monster, which they were accused of in July 2008, when a carcass Dr. Barrett believes to have been a decomposing pit bull, washed ashore in Montauk.

“The public has a misperception of Plum Island, but at the same time science doesn’t do a great job at public relations,” he said.

“We’re not doing anything secret,” he added.

To help improve the island’s public image, Dr. Barrett appeared in a 2009 episode of the History Channel’s “Monster Quest” to dispel the myth of the Montauk Monster.

Four years ago, he also introduced the first community tours of the property, during which visitors can see the work being done at the lab and make stops around the island. The lab arranges several tours a year for media, students and civilians.

Guests are even taken to view the infamous Building 257, the former research laboratory located at Fort Terry that has been said to be the site of secret government experiments.

Originally intended for munitions storage and explosives testing for the Army, the laboratory became the subject of a 2004 book by Michael Carroll entitled, “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory.”

The book makes the claim that the federal government snuck Nazi Germany’s top germ warfare scientist onto Plum Island after World War II to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the military. This was the basis for the creation of the lab, according to the book.

Others allegations in the book connect the Plum Island lab with the spread of Lyme Disease and West Nile virus.

Those claims make Dr. Barrett cringe.

“We didn’t have anything to do with any of those,” he said. “We’re trying to protect the country.”

Building 257 was first used for research after the Army left the island in the 1950s and the U.S. Department of Agriculture took it over to conduct livestock disease research, he said. The lab moved to the current facility on the other side of the island in the 1990s.

Last year, lab staffers created a new vaccine that researchers hope will help eradicate foot-and-mouth disease in livestock worldwide. The first advancement in foot-and-mouth research in 50 years, the vaccine makes it possible for farmers to tell vaccinated and unvaccinated cows apart, which allows them to select out infected animals rather than euthanizing the entire herd.

Fittingly, Dr. Barrett is himself the son of a cattle farmer, having been raised on a ranch in Oklahoma.

While attending Oklahoma State, Dr. Barrett received a scholarship to join the U.S. Air Force, he said. From there he went to serve on active duty and in the Air Force Reserve as a public health officer , retiring with the rank of colonel.

While on active duty, he served in the office of the Surgeon General, where he assisted in developing the food security program currently in use by the Department of Defense. The FDA adopted this food security model and awarded him an FDA Directors Award.

While he initially set out to be a veterinarian on his family farm, Dr. Barrett is happy he ended up at the lab, where he feels a personal connection with the work he’s doing.

“This job is important to me,” he said. “It’s not just because it’s food safety and protecting our nation’s food supply … I grew up on a cattle farm.

“When I first got the phone call [to work on Plum Island] it was an honor.”

cmurray@timesreview.com

09/06/13 10:00am
CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Wild geese can be seen walking throughout Plum Island, including outside the administration building, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Disease Center research takes place.

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Wild geese can be seen walking throughout Plum Island, including outside the administration building, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Center research takes place.

Reporters were given a rare behind-the-scenes tour of Plum Island Aug. 28. Check out some of the photos from the island below and read about the ‘mayor’ of the island here.

08/30/13 1:00pm
08/30/2013 1:00 PM

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | The federal government is pushing forward with plans to move the research facility on Plum Island to Kansas State University.

The federal government is pushing forward with plans to auction Plum Island to the highest bidder, despite repeated concerns raised by lawmakers and environmental groups that there is not enough information to support the sale.

The General Services Administration and Department of Homeland Security issued its “record of decision” last Thursday night. The recommendation is one of the last steps before the property is put to auction.

The agencies hope to close the research laboratory at Plum Island and use the profits from the island’s sale to cover the cost of constructing a new, $1.1 billion animal disease research laboratory in Manhattan, Kan. A facility at Kansas State University is necessary in order to study zoonotic diseases — illnesses that can be transferred from animals to people, said Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico.

The existing Plum Island lab does not have the capacity to study those types of diseases, Mr. Verrico said.

Additionally, Homeland Security wants to locate the research facility closer to veterinary schools and livestock, so samples can be received and processed faster, he said.

Meanwhile, elected leaders have taken issue with the the sale and taken steps to prevent development at the land.

Last month, Congressman Tim Bishop (D- Southampton) introduced “Save, don’t sell Plum Island,” a bill designed to overturn the 2008 congressional mandate for the federal government to sell the island.

Meanwhile, Southold Town approved new zoning laws Tuesday that would prevent any significant development of the island.

The record of decision comes two months after the General Services Administration released is final environmental study that suggested up to 500 homes could be built on the island.

The study had environmental groups up in arms, pointing to several holes in the document, including citing the discovery of mammoth bones on the island that were later found to be discovered on Plum Island, Mass., not New York.

The General Services Administration and Homeland Security issued a joint statement saying the agencies issued the record of decision after considering “all the factors discovered and analyzed” during the National Environmental Policy Act process.

Mr. Verrico said there is no estimate of what the 840-acre island could fetch at auction, but said the sale was at least five years away.

cmurray@timesreview.com

08/22/13 12:00pm
08/22/2013 12:00 PM

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY COURTESY PHOTO | A mammoth skull on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The Southold Historical Society is disputing the federal government’s claim that woolly mammoth bones were once discovered on Plum Island.

The finding was mentioned in one sentence of the 500-page Final Environmental Impact Statement for the island, released this past October by the General Services Administration.

When questioned by a reporter about the discovery, a GSA spokesperson cited an 1879 article published in The Long Islander newspaper of Huntington as the basis for the claim. The article announced the discovery of a woolly mammoth skull on the island, indicating that it could contain other prehistoric remains dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian era.

But Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming said several references in the article lead his organization to believe the discovery was made on Plum Island, Mass.

“As soon as we read the [Long Islander] article we realized it wasn’t from here,” he said. “It was very clear from the locations being discussed, like the life saving station, which never existed on Plum Island [New York].”

Mr. Fleming also said a reference to “Brothers Beach” and a captain named in the article further indicate that the article was about the island in Massachusetts, though the piece does not specifically mention the state in which the discovery was made.

The historical society is currently researching Plum Island for a book it plans to release later this year.

Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island have said the FEIS is lacking critical information required to assess various potential impacts associated with the property’s anticipated sale, and they’ve called for additional studies.

“Regardless of whether there are woolly mammoth bones on Plum Island you would expect the federal government would want to know what is out there in terms of archeology and biology,” Randy Parsons, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, told the Suffolk Times earlier this month. “It points to a weakness in the way the island is run by the federal government.”

New York senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer and Congressman Tim Bishop have also joined in pointing out flaws in the environmental study.

The three elected officials outlined eight areas in need of additional study in a letter sent to the GSA last Friday. Soil and groundwater contamination, an inventory of solid waste sites and an assessment of the island’s existing sewage treatment structure were all examples listed in the letter.

“In order to best plan for its future and to prevent a rush to mistakenly move it to an unwise and unwarranted sale, we need a top-to-bottom environmental review of Plum Island, especially in light of the scientific research conducted at Plum Island,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement.

Despite the “outstanding issues” detailed in the letter, the GSA plans to move forward with the sale without any additional testing, according to GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani, who added that a note may still be added to correct the location of the mammoth bone discovery.

“The federal government is required by law to sell Plum Island,” reads a prepared statement from the GSA. “An Environmental Impact Statement prepared over a two-year time frame takes into account hundreds of comments from the public and analyzes the potential impacts of the sale of Plum Island on human health and the environment.GSA and DHS will continue to work closely with EPA, congressional and local officials to ensure all environmental concerns are reviewed and considered.” Once the property is sold, state and local regulatory agencies will have the authority to conduct additional reviews of the island, according to the statement.

The 840-acre island is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Should the lab close, the GSA hopes to sell the property to a private developer for possible construction of up to 500 homes, according to the FEIS.

Since the island is federally owned, it is not currently subject to local zoning regulations. If it were sold, Southold Town would have jurisdiction over the property, which has prompted local officials to create new zoning categories for the island. The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing commercial development if the island is sold. It proposes two separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center and considerable open space.

The Southold Town Board is expected vote on the proposed zoning during its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 27.

cmurray@timesreview.com 

08/08/13 12:00pm
08/08/2013 12:00 PM
According to a July 11, 1879 newspaper report, the mammoth bones were discovered near Plum Island's western end (top).

FILE PHOTO | According to a July 11, 1879 newspaper report, the mammoth skull and bones were discovered near Plum Island’s western end (top).

The contents of a tiny brief published in a weekly newspaper more than 130 years ago has archaeologists and environmentalists calling for a closer look beneath the surface of Plum Island.

The article, published in a July 1879 issue of The Long Islander newspaper of Huntington, announced the discovery of a woolly mammoth skeleton on the island, indicating that it could contain other prehistoric remains dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian era.

The 19th-century discovery came to the attention of local environmentalists only recently, when they noticed one particular sentence in a 500-page draft environmental impact study of the island, released by the federal General Services Administration this past October.

That sentence reads: “The discovery of a mammoth skeleton on the west side of Plum Island suggests that the island could contain prehistoric remains.”

“This may be one of the most remarkable statements about the possible presence of archeological remains that I have personally encountered over the last 20 years of reviewing development proposals,” said Bob DeLuca, president and CEO of Group for the East End.

The mammoth skeleton, which archaeologists say would have to be more than 10,000 years old, was found in July 1879 beneath a 50-foot sand dune that extended 150 feet along an area known as Brother’s Beach, near the existing light station on the west end of the island, according to GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani.

The bones were revealed by wind and erosion and unearthed by a group of men who spotted them, according to the Long Islander article.

The amateur excavation produced a mammoth skull and over seven feet of backbone. At least one leg of the skeleton was also present, the article reported.

The skull was described in the article as “like that of an elephant,” which means it was likely the skull of a mammoth, Mr. Sclafani said.

The bones were moved to the light station, but the article noted that they were in very poor condition.

“From the condition of the bones, they must have been covered for ages, as they were ready to crumble and it was with difficulty that they could be handled so as to take them to the station without falling to pieces,” the article stated.

The GSA has no record of what became of the skeleton, Mr. Sclafani said.

If mammoth bones were, in fact, found on Plum Island, it would be historic, said Dr. Gaynell Stone, director of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, adding that she had no prior knowledge of the discovery of any mammoth bones on the North Fork east of Riverhead.

According to the New York State Museum in Albany, the most recent discovery of a woolly mammoth in the state occurred in 1934, when the Randolph mammoth, said to be about 12,000 years old, was found during the expansion of a fish hatchery western New York. To date, these remains, now in the museum’s collection, represent the most complete woolly mammoth skeleton found in the state.

An archeology book published by the museum lists all mammoth discoveries made statewide prior to 1902. The only listing for Suffolk County was “more than one half of a lower jaw with teeth,” discovered between tides in Riverhead in 1823.

Other area archeologists said the DEIS was the first time they’d heard of the Plum Island discovery.

“I asked around a bit and no one else seems to be aware of its existence or history,” said archeology professor David Bernstein of Stony Brook University.

Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island said this revelation is another reason the impact statement is lacking in critical information required to assess the impact of selling Plum Island.

The 840-acre island is home to the Plum Island lab, which is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Should the lab close, the GSA hopes to sell the property to a private developer for possible construction of up to 500 homes.

Since the island is federally owned, it is not currently subject to local zoning regulations. If it were sold, the island would fall under Southold Town jurisdiction, which has prompted local officials to create new zoning categories for the island. The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing the construction of condominiums, large houses or even a casino if the island is sold. It proposes three separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center with its own harbor and considerable open space.

However, the zoning may not help protect the prehistoric significance of the island.

In the Final Environmental Impact Study the government has marked several areas Prehistoric High Probability Zones, which might suggest that human remains of hunters that tracked the mammoths could also be buried on the island.

The Archaeological Resources Predictive Model provided in the FEIS indicates that prehistoric remains would most likely be found be at the west edge of Plum Island, adjacent to both Long Island Sound and Plum Gut — the only area where Southold Town’s proposed zoning would allow development, Mr. DeLuca said.

To address these concerns, Group for the East End believes supplemental fieldwork should be done to more thoroughly examine the extent of Plum Island’s archeological potential. The group would like to see the federal government complete a Stage II Archaeological Assessment, which would involve excavating areas near where the mammoth bones were found in1879, Mr. DeLuca said.

“Should the property be transferred to private ownership, the extent of the island’s prehistoric [significance] should be at least as well understood as its other natural, historic and cultural resources,” he said.

The Group for the East End’s comments come on the heels of a statement issued by the environmental organization Save the Sound accusing the federal government of incorrectly recommending a full, unrestricted sale of Plum Island.

Save the Sound believes the FEIS is inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act in evaluating foreseeable impacts of development and fails to take into account the government interest in protecting habitats of rare species.

Randy Parsons, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, said he agrees with Save the Sound.

“Regardless of whether there are woolly mammoth bones on Plum Island you would expect the federal government would want to know what is out there in terms of archeology and biology,” he said. “It points to a weakness in the way the island is run by the federal government.”

cmurray@timesreview.com