Friday, November 2, 2012

Guns, Germs and Real Estate

My first glimpses of Plum Island, like most people’s, were from afar. I grew up in Wading River, amid cabbage fields and subdivisions, and when we made the 40-minute drive out to the tip of the North Fork, usually on the way to somewhere else, the island had a way of peeking into view.

As a kid in the ’80s, the ospreys’ nests and oyster beds that lined the route to the Cross-Sound Ferry terminal in Orient didn’t have much allure to me. I didn’t know then how precious the pockets of nature, and the moments of quiet, would come to feel as the undeveloped parts of Eastern Long Island got smaller and smaller. The fresh golf courses and the build-to-suit signs didn’t yet feel ominous. 

What never failed to transfix, though, was Plum Island. On school field trips to Boston or Mystic Seaport, we’d crowd up against the ferry railing and squint through the fog of Plum Gut toward the low beige buildings with smokestacks and ventilation pipes lining their roofs. Our knowledge of the island, and the gaps in it, added up to fascination. We knew it was a lab; we knew they experimented on animals; we knew there were diseases there that were best separated from the mainland by a cold, choppy body of water. And when “The Silence of the Lambs” came out when I was 14, we knew it was a place even Hannibal Lecter wouldn’t want to live.

“Anthrax Island,” the cannibal doctor called it, and he wasn’t alone. Real events there – a power outage, multiple disease leaks and an early history of weapons research – mingled in the popular imagination with the Montauk Monster and the stuff of campfire stories. 

“Look at that place,” wrestler/governor Jesse Ventura intoned years later, bobbing in a boat offshore for his conspiracy-theory TV show. “It’s a toxic ticking time-bomb for an outbreak of cataclysmic proportions.” 

How, then, could I pass up a visit?


It would have been unthinkable decades ago, but Plum Island today, under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, is open for tours. They don’t make it easy – there are background checks and restrictions, and forms to sign with warnings not to visit farms, zoos, stockyards, “various menageries,” or pet stores for days afterward. But by the time I showed my ID to a security guard in Orient and boarded the morning boat to the island on a clear day last spring, I had been preceded by Cub Scout troops, bird-watchers and volunteer firemen. 

I was there as a magazine reporter, a species that the island’s government minders now found surprisingly welcome, in large part because of Plum Island’s uncertain future. With plans to move the lab to Kansas and sell the island weaving through the branches of the federal government, Plum Island was now more than just the site of a secretive animal disease lab – it was real estate. I had an escort from Homeland Security, whose name I had to promise not to print, and two more from the General Services Administration, the branch of government that sells off excess property.

After processing on the island we loaded into a van and rode, past the vine-covered remains of Fort Terry and through a weedy former parade ground, to the East End’s quietest beach. The fort, dating to the Spanish-American War, once housed hundreds of soldiers but was declared surplus after World War II. Now, by the island’s southeastern shore, there were a volleyball court and a horseshoe pit used mostly on the lab’s family day, and a lifeguard chair that lay on its side. Except for scraps of driftwood, a spider crab shell, and a stray thermos and Wiffle Ball washed up from points west, the long stretch of white sand was pristine. And with good reason: Besides environmental protection specialists who pick up trash regularly, security guards on foot patrol do what they can to tidy up.

Cool water lapped at the beach, and crickets chirped in the field nearby. The view to the south, across Gardiners Bay, took in the broad sweep of the Hamptons. To the east was Block Island, and wide open ocean.

“Just watch your step,” my government escort said. “Because sometimes out here, you find little tortoises.”


Here is Plum Island’s greatest secret: It’s beautiful. The landscape, wild and untamed, is a taste of what the rest of Long Island must have looked like before all the people came. All it took to preserve it were a few buildings, on a few small lots around the island’s 840 acres, with enough contagious pathogens inside to scare away the world. 

But life abounds. Along the rocky northern shore, where purple beach blossoms line the road, an emergency medical technician out for a walk in the days before my visit came upon an injured red-tailed hawk. Other workers have spotted bald eagles. I saw a seal poke its head out of the water, one of hundreds that stop at the island in cold weather on the way to their breeding grounds. And nature, over the years, has been reclaiming territory. 

At the island’s eastern tip, down a bumpy gravel stretch of road, is a cluster of heavy concrete fortifications that once held gun batteries to defend the east coast from air and sea attack. Now they’re overgrown with weeds and brush. 

Another look at the horizon offered a hint of Plum Island’s possible futures. To one side, Gardiners Island, five privately owned square miles off the coast of East Hampton with their own history of development intrigue.  To another, Fishers Island, a playground for the wealthy with a military background much like Plum Island’s. Finally, in the distance, Little Gull Island, a tiny outcropping that was government-owned for the moment – though the GSA was on the case.

“The lighthouse sits on an acre of land,” one of the GSA guys said. “So we’re going to sell that.”

We stopped at another gun battery, where a brick room once used to house ammunition now held a drum, marked “non-hazardous waste.” Poison ivy lined the path in and out, and when we emerged, we all stopped to pick ticks off our pant legs.

It was the ticks, later, that nagged at me. When you’re on an island rumored to be the birthplace of Lyme disease, little things can unsettle. So can bigger things, like the ghostly block of a structure, near a spot called Pine Point, that once held the island’s biological weapons lab. First built to store mines, it was vacant now, its entrances sealed shut and its cinder-block walls covered in peeling paint and vines. A barbed-wire fence ringed its perimeter. Fifty feet away was the beach, long and empty. We stood on a gun fortification and took it all in.

“This could all be yours,” someone mumbled.


A place like Plum Island, though, is not disposed of easily. In the months after my visit, the funding for the Kansas lab dried up and talk of Plum Island’s sale went quiet – though the real estate listings remain. (My magazine story dried up, too; not enough conflict, the editor said.) There were also questions about the island’s real worth. Optimists in the government had floated sums of $100 million. A real estate agent told me he’d guess more like $40 million. Let’s say you build a house there, he said. Would you want your kid digging in the sand?

But maybe the island’s value lies beyond money. Much of Long Island, after all, was empty a century ago. Since then the wide roads and housing grids have spread ever-eastward, over woods and potato fields and most everything else in their path. In Southold, a few miles from Plum Island’s shores, real estate offices tout mansions priced in the millions of dollars and undeveloped lots for almost as much.

In context, 840 acres of wilderness – even 840 acres of wilderness with a carcass incinerator – begin to look precious. 

“Is everything really reduced to the marketplace?” Bob DeLuca, an East End activist, asked me. “Is everything just always for sale? Is everything always at a price that somebody can buy it if they have enough money? Or are there some things that we’re going to step back and say, enough?”

Perhaps Anthrax Island is an odd place to take that stand. But from the shoreline near the old weapons lab, as a breeze blows off the bay and a family of geese edges into the water, it looks like the best place we have left

So anyway ...

Oh, hi.  I've been meaning to post this next piece forever. It's based on reporting that I first did in the late spring of 2011 for a magazine story that never ran. I later rewrote it entirely for a contest I didn't win. It never really found a home, but I still like it -- which is to say, it holds a very special place in my heart and I'm proud of it despite its weird process of coming into being. Fortunately the editor here lets me post whatever I want.

I can no longer vouch for the accuracy of current events, but the sentiments I'll stand behind. Please enjoy.