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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…)

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.


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.”

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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.

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01/05/13 3:00pm
01/05/2013 3:00 PM

TIM KELLY PHOTO | A bill pending in Washington would release $3.5 million to reroute the submarine electrical cable linking Orient (top) and Plum Island.

Is the Department of Homeland Security giving conflicting signals on its plans for the future of Plum Island? Congressman Tim Bishop thinks so.

On the one hand, Homeland Security has agreed to take title to 46 acres offered by the City of Manhattan, Kansas, the location of the proposed $1.14 billion National Bio- and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF). That center would replace the Plum Island animal disease research laboratory, at present the nation’s first line of defense against diseases that could threaten the domestic livestock industry.

During a press event last week the governor of Kansas and the state’s congressional delegation pointed to the transfer agreement as proof of Homeland Security’s committment to building NBAF.

But on Dec. 7 the White House, acting on a request from Homeland Security, requested a package of Sandy relief funding that includes $3.25 million for Plum Island. The request, from the department’s science and technology bureau, is for “erosion control and repair work,” specifically, rerouting and retrenching the submbarine electrical power cable running from Orient Point, underneath Plum Gut to the island.

That cable provides the island with a backup source of power.

The two seemingly conflicting actions leaves the congressman shaking his head.

“If the department is looking to get rid of the island, why would it spend that amount of money on a backup system?” Oliver Longwell, Mr. Bishop’s spokesman said.

The Plum Island funding was included in the administration’s $60.4 billion Sandy relief bill recently approved by the Senate. Mr. Longwell said it’s unclear whether that appropriation will be included in the House version, which is to be taken up during the week of Jan. 14.

Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas recently said damage to Plum Island caused by Hurricane Sandy shows the need for Homeland Security to move quickly on a new research facility. But Mr. Longwell said the department’s congressional liaison reported the island suffered no significant storm-related damage.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell, a member of the town’s emergency management team, said the report he received is that the hurricane caused some minor erosion where the cable makes landfall, but otherwise the island fared well.

Mr. Longwell said the congressman plans to press federal officials for details.

“We’ve got to do some more digging on this,” he said