LaLota launches bill to make Plum Island a national monument

Like his predecessors, the new representative from New York’s 1st Congressional District has taken interest in preserving Plum Island.

On March 15, Rep. Nick LaLota introduced the Plum Island National Monument Act. The congressman’s first piece of legislation since taking office in January calls for the island to be “established as a national monument for the purpose of ecological conservation, historical preservation, and the discovery and celebration of our shared cultural heritage.”

The 840-acre island located approximately a mile and a half east of Orient Point is home to the federal Plum Island Animal Disease Center and boasts a relatively untouched landscape, as the island has remained essentially off-limits to visitors with limited exception for decades.

Mr. LaLota’s efforts continue the tradition of representatives of the state’s 1st Congressional District taking measures to preserve Plum Island. In 2013, former Rep. Tim Bishop introduced a bipartisan bill to repeal a 2008 law that called for the sale of the island, as well as the closure of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Former Rep. Lee Zeldin took up the cause to great success. In a bipartisan effort between Mr. Zeldin, lawmakers from Connecticut and U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Congress passed a $2.3 trillion omnibus spending bill which included a provision to take Plum Island off the auction block in 2020.

The Department of Homeland Security is slated to finish closing the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 2028 and relocate research to a new facility in Manhattan, Kan.

Mr. LaLota’s proposal also mirrors the calls of various environmental advocates and locals who envision the island deemed a national monument. The Suffolk Times reached out to Mr. LaLota’s office, but could not speak with him prior to publication time. In a statement, Mr. LaLota said “for years, Plum Island has been an important piece of Suffolk County. After years of uncertainty, Congress acted in 2020 to prevent the sale and ensure the preservation of Plum Island. My simple bill would permanently protect Plum Island by designating it as a national monument, thereby preventing the development and any damage to the unique environment. I am committed to seeing this legislation become law to support the best interests of our community.”

While national parks must be approved by Congress, the president has the authority to declare a worthy site a national monument through the Antiquities Act of 1906. There are only six national monuments across New York State, compared to 22 national parks, the most recent being the Stonewall National Monument, which former president Barack Obama designated in 2016, recognizing the New York City bar for its significance in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

Southold Town officials,the Suffolk County Legislature and several advocacy groups have been pushing for Plum Island’s preservation for years.

Save the Sound, a New York- and Connecticut-based nonprofit, has played a key role in the push to preserve the island’s historic sites and ecological richness and spearheads the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, a membership made up of 120 national, regional and local organizations that have been working to ensure the island’s permanent conservation.

The island is home to two entries on the National Register of Historic Places: The Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, and Fort Terry, established on the island in 1897 as part of coastal fortifications related to the Spanish-American War.

Louise Harrison, the Long Island natural areas manager for Save the Sound, said the island offers awe-inspiring natural beauty from the 75-foot-high bluffs, from which “you can look to the south over these giant boulders and see harbor seals hauled out on the rocks, basking in the sun, with the waves lapping against the rocks,” to its dunes, forested areas and marsh that have “been left unspoiled.”

“It’s a place of wonderment,” Ms. Harrison, who has visited the island three times, said in an interview. “Your eyes are filled the whole time you’re there and you’re just in a state of excitement.”

As closure of the research facility looms, so does worry over the impact the process may have on the pristine environment. Back in January, the DHS issued its final environmental assessment of the animal disease center’s closure. The report, signed by Plum Island’s deputy center director John Searing and Teresa Pohlman, the executive director of DHS’s sustainability and environmental programs, lists best management practices for closing the research facility and concludes the shutdown “would result in no significant environmental impacts of an adverse nature in any resource category, in particular: air quality and climate change, earth resources, water resources, biological resources, cultural and historic resources, socioeconomics and environmental justice, hazardous and toxic materials and waste, health and safety, or cumulative impacts.”

This report may do little to dismiss concerns over what could escape the walls of the mystery-shrouded animal disease center. Conspiracy theorists and curious minds far beyond Long Island have long been obsessed with the wealth of speculation surrounding the off-limits island, as well as verified laboratory incidents.

Perhaps the most recent and one of the farthest reaching rumors regarding the animal disease center is the Montauk Monster. Fifteen years ago, a group of young women stumbled upon a ghastly animal carcass washed ashore at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk, photographed it and sent the pictures to the East Hampton Independent newspaper. Speculation deeming the animal a Plum Island escapee ensued, and national news outlets picked up what would become an internet and media sensation.

Plum Island and Lyme disease have been intertwined in conversation for decades. The potentially debilitating disease was named for Old Lyme, Conn., where it was first discovered, about 10 miles away from Plum Island. Claims that the military conducted weaponization experiments on ticks on the island and other areas and thus spawning Lyme disease have resulted in congressional action. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed an amendment which called on the Department of Defense’s Inspector General to investigate whether such experiments occurred between 1950 and 1975.

Accidents happen, and when they do, concern and conspiracy follow. In the summer of 2004, the contagious foot-and-mouth virus spread throughout the animal disease center in two separate incidents, which were undisclosed to the public for several weeks. The outbreak was contained within the center, but rekindled memory of a 1978 outbreak, during which the foot-and-mouth disease spread to animals beyond the walls of the laboratory.

While these incidents, claims and spooky sightings may scare some, they do not phase Ms. Harrison. She respects the research conducted within the walls of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and touts its importance.

“They have to constantly stay on top of what’s going on with foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever pathogens that they study there and deliver vaccines that are effective,” she said. “The work that they do there supports food supplies around the world.

“The economic importance of the science that takes place in Plum Island cannot be easily estimated,” she continued. “Their work basically saves economies worldwide, economies that have meat in their food supply.”