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.

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 boxer, 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.”

[email protected]

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.

[email protected]

06/27/13 2:00pm
06/27/2013 2:00 PM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER FILE PHOTO | No large-scale residential project will ever take place on Plum Island, Supervisor Scott Russell said this week.

The U.S. General Services Administration thinks the best future use of Plum Island, currently a federal animal disease research facility, is to sell it for the development of up to 500 dwellings.

But Southold Supervisor Scott Russell doesn’t see it that way.

“There will not be 500 houses on Plum Island,”  he said this week. “There will not be 5 houses on Plum Island.”

The town is in the process of backing up that statement by crafting new island-specific zoning that would prohibit large-scale residential development should the federal government move ahead with the construction of a $1 billion replacement laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas and sell the 840-acre island as surplus.

Under that scenario, any housing built on the island “would need to be accessory to, and in support of, the research facility and the permitted uses of that site as clearly specified in our proposed zoning. The GSA and any prospective buyer would need to understand that fact.”

The GSA’s recommendation is part of the environmental impact statement on the suggested sale of the island. But that report, the supervisor said, “fails to consider the fact that, ultimately, the decision rests with the Town of Southold under its zoning authority.”

The study outlines three development options. From Southold Town’s and environmentalists’ perspective, the most objectionable would be to sell the land to private investors for the construction of up to 500 homes.

The other two options mentioned in the EIS are for a buyer to convert the island’s animal disease research lab into a private research or business center or to use the land as a nature preserve.

Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said he supports the island’s conservation and plans to introduce a bill to eliminate the requirement in current law that Plum Island be sold as part of an effort to raise funds for a new $1 billion facility in Manhattan, Kansas.

“I join Southold Town and its residents and other stakeholders in strongly opposing the sale of Plum Island,” Mr. Bishop said in a statement. “The final Plum Island environmental impact statement shows that the island’s unique natural and historic resources are ideally suited for adaptive re-use of the current facility for research and preservation of the undeveloped areas, which has already been identified in Southold Town’s proposed zoning code as the community’s preference if the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center is eventually closed.”

The proposed zoning regulations would divide Plum Island into three districts separating the lab areas from a conservation district and a smaller section covering the harbor and ferry facilities.

[email protected]

06/26/13 1:36pm
06/26/2013 1:36 PM

Sell Plum Island to a private party.

That is the final federal recommendation from the U.S. General Service Administration, which is handling the sale of the  federally owned island.

The conclusion is based on the results of an environmental impact study released Tuesday that stated the sale would not negatively impact the environment.

The study outlines three development options. From Southold Town’s and environmentalists’ perspective, the most objectionable would be to sell the land to private investors for the construction of up to 500 homes.

The town is working on zoning to prevent any residential or commercial development on the 840-acre island just off the tip of Orient Point.

The other two options mentioned in the EIS are for a buyer to convert the island’s animal disease research lab into a private research or business center or to use the land as a nature preserve.

Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said he supports the island’s conservation and plans to introduce a bill to eliminate the requirement in current law that Plum Island be sold as part of an effort to raise funds for a new $1 billion facility in Manhattan, Kansas.

“I join Southold Town and its residents and other stakeholders in strongly opposing the sale of Plum Island,” Mr. Bishop said in a statement. “The final Plum Island environmental impact statement shows that the island’s unique natural and historic resources are ideally suited for adaptive re-use of the current facility for research and preservation of the undeveloped areas, which has already been identified in Southold Town’s proposed zoning code as the community’s preference if the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center is eventually closed.”

Since the island is federally owned it is not currently subject to local planning regulations. Southold began working on island-specific zoning regulations as a precautionary measure to prevent the construction of condos, “McMansions” or even a casino if the island is sold.

The proposed zoning regulations would divide Plum Island into three districts.

The Plum Island Research District would encompass the existing lab and surrounding 175 acres. About 600 undeveloped acres would be covered by the Plum Island Conservation District, and a Marine District would encompass the existing ferry facilities.

The Save the Sound organization called the final federal impact statement “fundamentally flawed.”

The GSA “has failed to adequately address concerns raised by the public after the draft environmental impact study was released and dismissed the data and information about conservation alternatives,” said Leah Schmalz, the group’s director of legislative and legal affairs. “The GSA has chosen to ignore those interests and to focus solely on putting Plum Island’s natural resources on the auction block.”

[email protected]

06/14/13 7:00pm
06/14/2013 7:00 PM

The latest Plum Island zoning draft does not include suggestions made by environmental groups, but town officials said the document addresses those issues and additional guidelines were not needed.

While supporting the direction the town’s taking, representatives from eight environmental organizations echoed the same two concerns during a Town Board hearing last month. The groups called for eliminating the possibility of installing solar energy panels in the proposed conservation district, and increasing the total acreage of that zone.

Officials believe the current wording, which only permits the panels as an accessory use, will achieve the town’s preservation goal and provide flexibility to explore the use of alternative energy on the island should zoning move forward.

The 840-acre island is federally owned and is not currently subject to local planning regulations. The town’s efforts to create new zoning categories for the island were prompted by the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to replace the facility off the tip of Orient Point with a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. If that project progresses, the Plum Island lab would be closed and the property sold to a private investor.

The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing the construction of condominiums, “McMansions” or even a casino if the island is sold. The pending zoning would create three separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center with its own harbor and considerable open space.

The latest draft allows the construction of solar collectors on 120 acres within the proposed conservation district. The environment organizations believe this type of construction works against preservation and suggested either eliminating or reducing the acreage on which solar generators would be permitted in order to minimize the impact on vegetation and wildlife.

Since any site plan for the island, including those with solar panels, would be subject to approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the town believes there is no need to an outright ban, Supervisor Scott Russell said.

The groups also called for increasing the acreage of the proposed conservation district and expanding that district by 37 acres to include land surrounding the Plum Island Lighthouse and acreage northeast of the existing lab.

Planning Department director Heather Lanza said much of that area would be protected by the current town code. Mr. Russell said the zoning is intended to protect both the ecosystem and the research facility, a large source of local employment.

To avoid the need for lot area variances in the future, officials included changes to the minimum lot area for the conservation and research districts. The revised proposal reduces the minimum lot area for the research district from 150 acres to 125 acres and trims the minimum lot area for the conservation district from 500 acres to 350 acres.

The Town Board is expected Tuesday to set a date for the next public hearing on the zoning.

[email protected]

05/07/13 7:30pm
05/07/2013 7:30 PM

Southold Town’s long-awaited plan to zone Plum Island received an outpouring of support during its first public hearing on Tuesday night.

The proposal suggests dividing Plum Island into three zoning districts.

The Plum Island Research District would encompass the existing lab and surrounding 175 acres. About 600 undeveloped acres would be covered by the Plum Island Conservation District with a Marine District for the existing ferry facilities.

Since the 840-acre island is federally owned, it’s not subject to local planning regulations. The new zoning would take effect only if the island is sold for non-government use.

Reporter Cyndi Murray blogged live from the event. For a recap click the link below:

05/07/13 8:00am

Residents will weigh in on Southold Town’s long-awaited plan to zone Plum Island tonight.

The proposal would divide Plum Island into three zoning districts.

The Plum Island Research District would encompass the existing lab and surrounding 175 acres. About 600 undeveloped acres would be covered by the Plum Island Conservation District with a Marine District for the existing ferry facilities.

Since the 840-acre island is federally owned, it’s not subject to local planning regulations. The new zoning would take effect only if the island is sold for non-government use. The town’s planning department began working on the zoning after the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to replace the Plum Island lab with a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. The project calls for closing the Plum Island lab and selling the property to a private investor.

Without restrictive zoning in place, many fear Plum Island could become home to condominiums, “McMansions” or even a casino.

The public hearing on the issue will be held tonight at Town Hall beginning at 7:30 p.m.