Fallout: Current Affairs at Plum Island. Afterword to the Paperback Edition

t was an auspicious response. For the first time in more than two years, and the first time since September 11, 2001, a late-breaking media advisory went out from the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. A press tour would be held by the USDA and the Department of Homeland Security, on President’s Day, of all dates. The New York Times showed up. So did Reuters and the Associated Press, NBC’s Today show, Newsday, and New York City television and radio stations. I did too — after all, my book was the reason why everyone was there.

Reporters asked the Plum Island scientists, seated behind a makeshift dais, if their sudden openness had anything to do with the book Lab 257, scheduled for national release the following day. “No,” they said. “Absolutely not. Now why would you think such a thing?”

Undeterred, those in the media treated to the quadrennial Plum Island dog and pony show asked the brass what they thought of the new book detailing the past half-century of their island laboratory. Two responses came forth: “What can I say?” a distinguished scientist rhetorically asked the Today show. “This goes to show you, you can’t judge a book by its cover.” And the other, “Sounds more like science fiction that fact.” Off the record, they admitted a not-so-unimportant fact. When a reporter asked if any of them had read the book, all of them responded no, although one “skimmed” it. To this day, not one fact has been successfully challenged. So much then for scientific fact trumping “science fiction.” Since then, Plum Island and its chorus of pseudo-scientific sycophants have called me a lot of things — except “wrong.”

Standing on the side of the road in Orient Point that cold winter morning (now deemed a “security threat,” I was refused access to the island), I held my own press conference. I appeared on national television and radio, and in print. The book made an appearance on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Asked to comment, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton responded that she hadn’t read the book yet, but it “appeared” to raise the “important issues of safety and security I’ve been raising for over a year.” Hundreds of emails poured into my website from around the country, all concerned about this little known place that clearly had dangerous biological potential, a place targeted by a reputed terrorist. I attended many book sign-ings and book fairs, participated in panel discussions, and appeared on radio talk shows. I spoke to college students in their microbiology classes. Virtually everyone I encountered expressed outrage at a government laboratory in such patent disrepair that it posed a threat to us all.

Ordinary citizens responded by writing letters, like this one that appeared in the New York Times two weeks after the book’s release, where the writer clearly felt I had not gone far enough:

“My agenda is not to close Plum Island, it’s to make it safe,” said Michael Christopher Carroll, author of “Lab 257,” diluting his strong warnings. Why not move it?

What benefit is there from having deadly animal research two miles from such a heavily populated area, when birds and mosquitoes can easily travel that distance and beyond?

Why has nothing been learned from 9/11, anthrax, ricin, West Nile virus, SARS, and bird flu? Why ignore the fact that most new human viruses come from animals and become more deadly when they jump species?

Why do we have to wait until after terrorism, accidents, or naturally occurring dangers create widespread epidemics from Plum Island? Why is there not an outrage from the public, the media, and politicians? And most of all, why are government officials doing nothing but stubbornly defending their unconvincing assurances of safety?

Or this letter, that appeared in a local paper close to Plum Island in late August 2004, which also went further than I did and suggested a solution:

It never ceases to amaze me that for as long as Plum Island has been in existence, we are still talking about breaches of security and safety. What will it take before it is realized that this facility should be close down permanently?.. Just ask your local police and fire departments how much training they have received in the event of an accident at Plum Island.

One cannot live too far from this facility. I have little confidence that we are told all there is to know about what kind of activity truly goes on there and certainly have no confidence in the security. We should be fearful of what we don’t know about what goes on there: how often security is breached, and how much of that ends up on our trees, fruits, vegetables, and drinking water… Plum Island has outlived its usefulness.

In my defense to these justifiably enraged citizens’ viewpoints, I can only say my goal was to present the evidence best I could, and let the reader decide whether the rewards justify the risks.

Some of the island’s scientists quietly acknowledged their agreement with the concerns raised in the book. Other Plum Island veterans were openly hostile to me. Merlon Wiggin stood up at a public forum, waived his copy of Lab 257 riddled with Post-it notes in the air, and boldly accused me of fabricating direct quotes attributed to him over multiple pages. When I politely reminded him before the assembled crowd that I had talked to him on the phone multiple times, received faxes from him, and spent hours at his East Marion home interviewing him with a tape recorder, he didn’t want to hear anything of it. Also at that forum, Dr. Carol House sharply criticized my book, but later admitted she hadn’t read it because she heard it was “no good.” Finally, I read in a newspaper that Ben Robins, who took me on the “jungle tour” though Plum Island, recently unsheathed his fountain pen and wrote “Blab 257,” which I look forward to reading with great anticipation, should he send me a copy of his tome.

All foolishness aside, two groups remain painfully silent: the current scientists of Plum Island and our elected leaders. It is my opinion that the former group remains mired in bureaucratic inertia and the latter find Plum Island to be an issue far too difficult to tackle because it cannot be dispensed in the twenty-four-hour news cycle to score political points. Instead, they continue to ignore the imminent threat of this book’s subject. Instead, we continue to get more of the same — pretty glossy photo ops, beat-the-drum press releases, and letters crammed with prattle — and nothing changes at one of the most inviting biological soft targets in the nation. I did get an inquiry from the office of Congressman Dan Burton, who sits on the House Government Reform Committee and is known to take on tough issues, but that went nowhere. Of all municipalities adjacent to Plum Island, not one of them asked me to brief them. But members of the Boston City Council invited me to talk about the mistakes made on Plum Island, as Boston University is considering establishing a similar laboratory. Finally, New York Senator Michael Balboni, the chair of his state’s homeland security committee, asked me to brief him before he made an inspection of Plum Island.

Sadly then, the book has largely fallen upon deaf governmental ears. As I write this, Plum Island has suffered yet another germ outbreak, a cross-contamination episode inside the laboratory on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary gala that the USDA planned for itself. Instead of spoiling the party, the scientists of Plum Island thought it better to conceal the laboratory accident; only after four weeks did they inform Senator Clinton, the local congressman, and members of a “community forum,” who themselves practiced non-disclosure until an anonymous tip reached the ears of News-day investigative reporter Bill Bleyer. Apparently this modus operandi at Plum Island. All this writer can do is detail the recent gaffes and phony window dressing designed to quash public inquiry in this laboratory’s conduct, and hope that perhaps this book will one day fall into the laps of someone who can make a real difference. I had expected real change would have been the norm out there by now. But my expectations have gone unanswered— and we remain at risk.

One of the things that can be fairly said about Lab 257 is that it is historical. It only speaks as of late 2003 when I delivered the final manuscript. A reader might be thinking that a good amount of time has passed for the material to be digested and addressed. Rather than simply state that is not the case, I’ll show through Plum Island’s own words and deeds.

* * *

We’re equally proud of our safety record…. Not once in our nearly 50 years of operation has an animal pathogen escaped from the island.

— HOME PAGE OF PLUM ISLAND WEBSITE

If you haven’t skipped to the end of the book, then you are likely shocked at the sheer hubris of this statement. Let’s look at the first sentence. Proud? How on Earth can Plum Island scientists be “proud” of a safety record that boasts germ outbreaks, injured lab workers, and literally hundreds of federal environmental and occupational safety hazard law violations? The second statement is reminiscent of another brassy statement: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” i.e., a statement of legal technicality. Until we have a comprehensive scientific investigation, we cannot ever know if Lyme disease, West Nile virus, or the Dutch duck plague virus is connected to Plum Island. But, we do know, from their own rare admission that on at least one occasion, germs did escape the “World’s Safest Lab” and infected healthy animals outdoors on Plum Island. We know this only because it was impossible to conceal, because every person had to be evacuated from Plum Island in a spacesuit, and because every animal — healthy or infected — was ordered to be killed. The fact that the outbreak didn’t “escape the island” obscures the fact that they had a massive germ outbreak, yet they don’t get into such little detail on their website. It’s up to the public, now armed with the truth, to call Plum Island on it. Finally, they are again stressing they work only with “animal pathogens,” and have repeatedly taken pains to note they work on diseases affecting animals. Another half-truth. Anthrax, West Nile virus, and the deadly Rift Valley fever virus described in this book may be strictly classified as “animal diseases” in the eyes of Plum Island scientists, but they ought not use this as a PR smoke screen when explaining their work to the public. Those diseases are deadly to humans, and it is incumbent upon them to disclose that to the public.

* * *

In July 2004 the Department of Homeland Security finally decided it was time to deploy federal armed guards on Plum Island. As if on cue, the public was treated to another press release, this time from Congressman Timothy Bishop, who succeeds a line of one- and two-term congressmen in the district that includes Plum Island. “We all recognized that unarmed guards alone are not an adequate defense in the face of an attack,” said Bishop. “I applaud the Department of Homeland Security.” But, the guards are a mere window dressing. The guards are only to be stationed on Plum Island during business hours — as if terrorists only attack nine to five. This book detailed the reputed terrorist, a disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist who met with Osama bin Laden multiple times, who was caught in Afghanistan with a dossier on Plum Island — and a part-time placement of guards on Plum Island is “applauded” by the local congressman? Caught in the milieu then: absentee elected officials and USDA scientists, a faulty laboratory researching dangerous germs (and a terrorist target), and us.

* * *

Newsday investigative reporter Bill Bleyer just couldn’t believe it. We were talking one morning about the new germ outbreaks on Plum Island that occurred over the summer of 2004, a story Bleyer broke after he received a tip from one of his sources close to the island. In an all too familiar sequence of events, Plum Island engaged in a cover-up of the outbreak. The two laboratory accidents occurred just days before a fiftieth anniversary celebration the scientists were planning. I can tell you from years of research that if Doc Shahan, Plum Island’s first director, were at the helm, a biological event of this magnitude would have prompted him to cancel the festivities and close the lab. Everything I learned about Doc Sha-han is summed up in one simple rule he repeated to a reporter in the 1950s: “We take no risks,” Doc Shahan said. “We may be extreme, but I don’t think so. It’s better to be overcautious all the time, than not cautious enough just once.” But that was then. Too much at stake to heed Doc Shahan’s prescient advice, went the current thinking. Probing newspaper and television reporters, and that meddling author would have a field day with this one if we told them about it. Plum Island had organized a full gala, replete with speeches, alumni gatherings, tours, and gauzy media press kits. Nothing would stop it from proceeding. Not even a germ outbreak.

After the excitement faded a month later, the scientists called up Senator Clinton and confessed: “Oops.” A week or so after that, Clinton and Bishop wrote yet another letter, thanking the scientists for “notifying our offices about the two inadvertent foot-and-mouth disease cross-contaminations that occurred in the biocontainment areas of Plum Island Animal Disease Center. We urge you to immediately investigate these alarming breaches at the highest levels, and to keep us apprised of all developments.” The immediacy of their letter, tied to a six-week-old germ outbreak was disheartening. Plum Island called it an “incident,” just as they had years ago when germs escaped the laboratory, instead of calling it what it was — a biological outbreak. Same as then, they refused to use the “O-word” that prompted scientist Dr. Don Morgan to dub the earlier outbreak the “disastrous” incident.

What actually happened is very easy to understand. On at least two separate occasions, healthy animals on one side of the laboratory — suppos-edly sealed from the rest of the laboratory compartments and sealed to the outside world — became infected with the same germs being studied in a different laboratory module on the other side of the building. If this germ outbreak doesn’t once and for all condemn this half-century-old laboratory, I’m not certain anything will. Some questions come to mind: Who knew about the outbreak? Why didn’t the scientists disclose the outbreak to the public? How did it happen? Were proper safety measures followed? What are the effects of the germs leaking outside of containment? Who was responsible for the outbreak? What action has been taken against him, her, or them? What kind of repairs and training and education is under way to prevent an outbreak from occurring again? Why elected officials like Clinton and Bishop aren’t taking to the streets after this cover-up is a question whose answer is beyond the scope of this epilogue.

As I’ve written in this book, it is high time to stop the letters, press releases, photo-ops, and empty condemnations, and start doing something meaningful out there.

* * *

Perplexed, Bleyer could not reckon why Plum Island officials didn’t call him up and tell him what had happened. He was infuriated — he had reported on the anniversary party days before and given them positive coverage. And months before that, Plum Island had given him an exclusive “Day in the Life” tour of Plum Island that he turned into a comprehensive feature story in his newspaper. They had promised Bleyer they would be forthright about things the public ought to know about, and to him, this certainly topped this list. He was also angry at Clinton and Bishop, who also didn’t tell him what had happened so he could report it (the letter they wrote to Plum Island wasn’t released to the public until he cajoled them into releasing it). Unfortunately, Bleyer didn’t get it. Plum Island used him as free PR tool to promote a positive image of the island, then reneged on their openness pledge the moment it didn’t suit them to keep it.

Perhaps worst of all is what I learned last summer, when giving a talk on tiny Fishers Island, which sits about five miles northeast of Plum Island along the shoreline of Connecticut. Two fine groups, the nature conservancy and the local library, invited me there to address the residents. More than one hundred people showed up to hear what I, and the director of a Long Island group called The North Fork Environmental Council, had to say. It’s not what was said that night, but rather what I later learned wasn’t said which was most troubling.

The talk was after the germ outbreak, but before Bleyer’s Newsday story, so at that time no one except the Plum Island scientists, and the senator and congressman knew. Or so I thought. The evening progressed and the understandably concerned citizens of Fishers Island became increasingly outraged at the antics of their neighboring island, but the invited guest seated to my right knew about the outbreak and didn’t tell the assembled citizenry. She had been part of a select group of “community leaders” briefed by Plum Island scientists. Why she would keep this critical information from the now smoldering neighbors of Plum Island is an enigma. Perhaps this community leader figured she and her group could solve Plum Island’s problems all by herself? One thing is for sure: had not Bleyer stumbled upon the germ outbreak, the public would have known nothing about it.

* * *

The Plum Island PR machine keeps on churning. In October 2004, Dr. Dan Bradway, a scientist from Washington State, who put in brief stint researching on Plum Island, weighed in with an opinion piece in Newsday, oddly entitled “‘Mystery Island’ is no threat to us,” (italics mine) when Brad-way himself could not live farther away from Plum Island and still be in the continental United States. He playfully discusses Nelson DeMille’s novel Plum Island, and then brushes off my book as another work of fiction:

This history of secrecy has led to all kinds of wild conspiracy and accident theories about diseases escaping from Plum Island. In a recently published book, “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory,” author Michael Carroll tries to connect Plum Island to Lyme disease and the 1999 outbreak of West Nile virus. Other non-scientist authors have blamed the island for Saint Louis encephalitis virus and even AIDS.

He then goes on to describe how well protected Plum Island is, and meticulously details its biological safety practices. “Conspiracy and accident theories?” Bradway has shown great impudence here, failing to mention the covered-up germ outbreak that occurred two months before he penned his opinion, the two stolen laptop computers, and the workers hired with felony criminal arrest records, among other mishaps. For a place hatched by Nazi Germany’s top germ warfare scientist, host to germ outbreaks (like the two painstakingly detailed in this book), and a myriad of accidents and safety violations sprinkled upon Plum Island like rainbow jimmies on an ice cream cone, this is a fatally flawed opinion. Classic Plum Island spin, Dr. Bradway throws in AIDS and St. Louis encephalitis for good measure to obscure the true facts.

As I’ve said to people looking for links among Plum Island, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus, during my seven years of research I did not happen upon an octogenarian scientist hobbling out from behind a white curtain, exclaiming, “It was me! I did it! I spawned Lyme disease at Plum Island!”

And yet, there’s still an unexplained initial outbreak of Lyme disease occurring nine miles away from an exotic germ laboratory with quarter-inch holes in its roof — a lab busy breeding hundreds of thousands of ticks including a tick known to spread Lyme disease with African Swine fever virus cross-contaminated with who knows what — that is worthy of a real, scientific investigation. And a little-known outbreak of West Nile virus, that killed horses on the doorstep of Plum Island weeks before humans first contracted the illness many miles away in New York City in August of 1999, also deserves a real, scientific investigation.

Bradway then concludes, “There is no scientific merit to any of these theories.” He is right in a sense — there is no scientific merit to them— because they have never been investigated by his esteemed brethren, which is the same reason he has no basis to call them conspiracies. Is it logical to conclude that something didn’t cause an event because it hasn’t been investigated? If that is Bradway’s brand of science, then I’m honored to wear his badge of “non-scientist author.” It’s strange that someone who spent such a brief time on Plum Island can post such an elaborate defense of an ill-maintained laboratory that doesn’t have one.

Speaking of Lyme disease, a letter that a reader wrote struck a deep chord in me. Those who brush aside any possible connection without giving so much as lip service to conducting an appropriate scientific investigation should take his impassioned opinion to heart:

Fellow Lymies:

I usually don’t post messages, but have replied to many of you privately. In this case, It’s too important to stay quiet. Yes, Tim, Lyme disease has been around longer than Plum Island. But not in this form — not doing the things it does to our bodies, our central nervous system, our minds. We are the last people who should dismiss this book for this simple reason: I don’t want an apology, I don’t care about holding people accountable and the outrage of it all, if it’s true… But if it is true, someone might know something that could help us.

Aren’t you all tired of this disease that is killing us? Are you just a little sick of being on 12 meds which almost cover 40 percent of the symptoms? Have you ever said to yourself, “God, this disease is so unnatural?”

I don’t mean to be strident, but look, just the fact that the American Lyme Disease Foundation came out publicly dismissing this book was a big clue for me. In seven plus years of reading about Lyme disease, almost every statement I’ve ever read from the ALDF is, in my opinion, against patient interest. I would encourage every one of you to get this book and read it. Here is someone who doesn’t even have the disease and who, if nothing else, points out the sheer horror of the experience. Bravo for Michael Carroll, and trust me, if you read the book there is no way you can say, “Aw, I don’t buy it.” On the Today show, they discussed how while they were hosting a tick colony, right across the water from old Lyme, Connecticut, there were holes in the ceiling. Maybe one or two of those 400,000 ticks got out.

Let me make this really clear: I was a healthy guy, a 35-year-old television executive making big money and knowing big people and just starting to get the payoff of 20 years of hard, hard work when this stuff came in and BOOM! It took away my life; it took away my ability to make money, my health, my sex drive, my energy (which used to fuel me through 15-hour shoot days on rigorous television production schedules). I can’t make plans, can’t get to church….

I was invited to go see a member of Congress a few months ago, and I was too sick to go. Too sick to go talk about being too sick… Michael Carroll has taken all of us one step closer to getting the attention, the care, and the respect that we deserve.

Okay, that’s all I can say, I’ve got to go and lie down.

* * *

I wonder if the message of Lab 257 gets drowned in its “parade of horribles.” Perhaps people believe that because there is such a lengthy trail of misdeeds, it is impossible to start fixing Plum Island. Or that speaking out about this island is a futile exercise, and that its problems are insurmountable. Allow me to outline four straightforward issues to be addressed, and how to get our leaders to take them seriously and tackle them.

FIRST:Re-establish the thirty-four-man armed guard patrol that protected Plum Island in the 1950s, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Stop cold comforting the public with a nine-to-five security patrol, because it’s not going to stop a terrorist who attacks outside of business hours. Re-establish the Plum Island Fire Department and disband the volunteer bucket bridge of untrained scientists and support workers.

SECOND:Transport the exotic germs that arrive from international airports to Plum Island, that regularly travel along local roads of New York and Connecticut, only by armed courier. Emergency first responders must be notified of each trip to respond to a biological accident or ambush.

THIRD:Lockdown Plum Island airspace from all air traffic and enforce a no-fly zone with the national guard aircraft that are stationed nearby.

FOURTH:Un-privatize the Plum Island support staff, and reestablish full federal control of the island. Plum Island’s sister laboratory in Ames, Iowa holds far less dangerous germs and it has never been privatized, like Plum Island has with a shoestring private contractor that received special prefer-ences — not because it did good work, but because it was owned by an Alaskan Eskimo tribe (yes this is true).

By no means is this list exhaustive, but it is bite-sized and ready for spoon-feeding to anyone who will listen.

I’m often asked by readers, “What can I do to help fix Plum Island?” I suggest first that people tell their friends, family, and neighbors about this precarious island. All the information needed is between these covers and on my website, www.lab257.com. Then, grab a phone book and call your local, state, and federal elected officials, and demand action, for starters, on the four points above. Ask them why they aren’t informing the public about the dangers of Plum Island and more importantly, doing something about it. Failing that, contact the news media and urge them to report on Plum Island to raise public awareness. Finally, it is said that the pen is mightier than the sword — draft a letter to the editor to be included in your town’s local newspaper or church bulletin. No publication is too small to get the word out. The more people who know about Plum Island, the better. The more voices that are raised, the greater likelihood of success there will be in eliminating America’s softest terrorism target. The demands of ordinary citizens like you appears to be the only recourse left to get Plum Island appropriately cleaned up or permanently shut down.

If you have other ideas on how to redress the situation, I want to hear about them. Write me at lab257@att.net, and let’s work together to reveal to the citizenry a Plum Island that, for all the empty political talk and pretty window dressing, remains a biological ticking time bomb.

— Michael Christopher Carroll

February 2005

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