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19 April 2004. D. writes:

Regarding the recent Plum Island posting, the news story describes Plum Island as a BSL-4 facility.  Last time I checked, it was a BSL-3 and I am still under the impression that it is so.  Also, by referring to the place as "Monster Island," the story you posted to me appears to be alarmist, and clouding rather than clarfiying issues involving the island.  The story also seems to imply that some of our country's most controversial research might take place there, citing Project Jefferson and the mousepox research by St. Louis University scientist.  I've neither seen nor read indication that is the case and the author gives nothing to back that up. As I understand it, there was consideration given in recent years to making Plum Island BSL-4 but that it was quashed by New York members of Congress.

Also, you'll see the map below by the Sunshine Project, dated Oct. 2003, lists Plum Island as BSL-3 and does not categorize it as a planned or existing BSL-4.

19 April 2004

Maps from
Source of photos:

Plum Island Animal Disease Center:


Land, buildings and other facilities of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center were transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in June 2003.

"Monster Island"

New York’s Plum Island is a level-4 bioresearch facility. What exactly is going on there?


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 for days.

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.

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.

The Sunshine Project

US Office:
101 West 6th St, Suite 607
Austin TX 78701

This map shows existing biosafety level three and four facilities used in US biodefense research, as well as planned biodefense labs recently funded by the US National Insitutes of Health and other agencies. Excluded from this map are high containment facilities not known to be heavily dedicated to biodefense studies. This map is periodically updated. Readers are encouraged to submit additions and corrections. v1.4 (28 Oct 2003)



Biosafety Level 4 Existing

USAMRIID Fort Detrick, Frederick, Maryland
810 Schreider Street
Fort Detrick, Maryland 21702-5000

Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia
1600 Clifton Rd, Atlanta, GA 30333

Univ. of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
301 University Boulevard, Galveston, Texas

Southwest Institute, San Antonio, Texas
6220 Culebra Road, San Antonio, Texas 78228-0510


Biosafety Level 4 Planned

Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
NIH/USAMRIID, Ft. Detrick, Frederick, Maryland
Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia
Univ. of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
Rocky Mountain Labs, Hamilton, Montana


Biosafety Level 3 Existing

Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Massachusetts
USDA Plum Island Center, New York
CALSPAN-UB, Buffalo, New York (AB)
PHRI, Newark, New Jersey
Armed Forces Inst. of Pathology, Washington, DC
Naval Medical Research Ctr., Bethesda, Maryland
US Army SBCCOM (2), Aberdeen, Maryland (AB)
Southern Research Inst., Frederick, Maryland
The Pentagon, Northern Virginia
George Mason University, Manassas, Virginia (AB)
US EPA, Cincinatti, Ohio
Battelle Memorial Inst., West Jefferson, Ohio
IITRI, Chicago, Illinois
Southern Reseach Inst., Birmingham, Alabama
Midwest Research Inst., Kansas City, Missouri (AB)
Centers for Disease Control, Ft. Collins, Colorado
Los Alamos National Lab, Los Alamos, New Mexico
ovelace Institute, Albuquerque, New Mexico (AB)
US Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah (AB)
University of Washington, Seattle

(AB) indicates aerobiology facility


Biosafety Level 3 Planned

UMD of New Jersey, Newark
University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
University of Alabama at Birmingham
University of Tennessee at Memphis
Tulane Primate Center, Covington, Louisiana
University of Missouri, Columbia
Argonne National Lab, Argonne, Illinois
Agricultural Biosecurity Ctr., Manhattan, Kansas
Centers for Disease Control, Ft. Collins, Colorado
Colorado State University, Fort Collins
Lawrence Livermore Lab, Livermore, California

Plum Island
Animal Disease Center

USGS Photo April 1994

USGS Photo April 1994