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Lab 257: Behind the Book (Feb, 2004)

I've often been asked why I decided to write about Plum Island. Are you a newspaper reporter? Investigative journalist? Environmental activist? "No," I said. "But I am a concerned Long Islander -- and I like to write." What an answer. I can't seem to conjure up some media savvy, intriguing reason why Plum Island seized me, and the better part of seven years of my life. I threw away the dream job of a lifetime, practicing corporate law at a top Wall Street firm during an economic boom, working alongside a former governor, and instead chased after the story of Plum Island: a story no one wanted told. It took years to gather all the facts. I went broke in the process. I borrowed money from my bank, my family, and my friends. I picked up odd-jobs like serving legal papers to make ends meet. My lifestyle morphed from a view of Central Park and black tie functions to a shabby-chic six-floor walkup and peanut butter and jelly.

Lab 257 by Michael Carroll
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In the summer of 1992, as part of a ritual before picking up a friend from the Connecticut-to-New York ferry, I drove out to Orient Point, the end of the narrow strip of rural land that lies on either side of Route 25. Abandoning my car at the end of the road, I hiked through a mile's worth of tall beach grass, making my way to the very tip of Long Island. I climbed a high rocky bluff that sloped off to a sandbar that stretched far into the water, until it stopped abruptly at an ancient lighthouse that looked more like a cast-iron coffee pot than a warning beacon. Crouching on the bluff, I gazed at the waves from the Long Island Sound as they met the current of Gardiner's Bay -- the precipice of the great Atlantic Ocean -- crashing together, spitting spindrift high into the air, and falling against the shore. Through the light haze, 10 miles off to the north was the long coastline of Connecticut; between us, the ferry slowly chugged its way toward me. Out past the lighthouse was a wide green landmass. It looked deserted except for a powder blue water tower that sprouted above a green canopy. The island triggered a series of thoughts -- rumors of biological warfare tests, news stories about deadly virus experiments, talk about Lyme disease being hatched there, hearing about a family friend who worked on Plum Island and contracted some strange, undiagnosed ailment during a storm. But it doesn't make sense -- it looks so pristine! What is happening out there? And why?

The long white ferry charged into the foreground, sailing through the deep gut between where I sat and Plum Island. It was time to go pick up my friend. As I returned to the car, I resolved to one day uncover exactly what Plum Island is.

Years later, fresh out of law school, I began to revisit that haunted place, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. To begin unraveling the real story -- what happened (and still happens) behind the island's locked gates -- I needed to educate myself in a variety of divergent topics. I immersed myself in research on a wide range of far-reaching subjects -- geology, colonial history, animal diseases, human diseases, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, animal psychology, microbiology, biological warfare, coastal artillery, terrorism, lighthouses, and American Indians. I spoke to scientists, government officials, local residents, historians, and past and present employees of Plum Island, collecting firsthand accounts of this inexplicably anonymous place. Friends thought I had become fanatical about the topic. They were right -- the passion of "Plum" (as it's called by those in the know) had consumed me.

Lab 257 is the byproduct of scores of interviews and innumerable official documents, some of which came courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act. Others actually came from Plum Island itself. The island's management initially cooperated -- they granted me exclusive, unprecedented access to Plum Island. The story benefited greatly from those personal visits. After the sixth visit I was abruptly shut down and denied further access by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the grounds of "national security." When they realized that I was going to tell the truth about Plum Island, and not the saccharine stuff they were feeding me, the government pulled the plug.

My research turned up disquieting descriptions of Plum Island like "Right Out of The Andromeda Strain" and "Uncle Sam's Island of No Escape" and "The Setting of an Ian Fleming Novel." And a personal favorite: "Asking for directions to Plum Island is like asking for directions to Frankenstein's castle." As I delved deep into researching and writing this story, I harkened back to the science fiction novels I enjoyed as a child, and came to a numbing realization: scientific truth can indeed be stranger than science fiction.

I came to realize the USDA is far more than wholesome Grade-A Eggs, and that veterinarians are not all "doggy docs" that tend gingerly to the well-being of golden retrievers and calicos. Once the story began to take shape, those mom-and-apple-pie feelings quickly dissipated. I found Plum Island to be more than a nearby atoll covered in a blanket of trees and secrecy. The island's vibrant history stretches back 350 years: it was once an ancient Indian fishing outpost, later colonized by early English settlers, then a sheep and cattle farm, a Revolutionary War battleground, a rendezvous for the British in 1812, a coastal defense fort, a submarine mine factory, and an Army biological warfare laboratory. Since 1954, the ostensible mission of Plum Island's Animal Disease Center has been to protect America's $100 billion livestock industry and defend it from foreign viruses, like the foot-and-mouth disease virus epidemic that ravaged Europe in 2001. After September 11, 2001, its mission returned to biological warfare.

Today, it is home to virginal beaches, cliffs, forests, ponds, bogs, trails, paths, roads, buildings, and people -- and the deadliest germs that have ever roamed the Earth. And the Plum Island germ laboratory is about as safe as a junior high school biology lab.

Do I have a gripping answer to the question of why I wrote Lab 257? I know one thing: it's a story too important not to be told, and it hasn't been told until now. Plum Island demanded a carefully written, unbiased look, not from both sides, but from all sides. It needed to be probed by someone who wasn't obsessed with rooting out government waste and corruption, or wed to conspiracy theories. The purpose of my book then is to try and reach that goal -- to explore the last half-century on Plum Island in depth -- a half-century of biological experimentation and scientific breakthroughs, darkened by upheaval, concealment, and astonishingly careless management.

I hope that Lab 257 will shed light on the fascinating story of Plum Island. I hope that it prompts a frank and open discussion between the public and its government on protecting present and future generations from preventable catastrophes lurking in our midst -- before the preventable becomes the inevitable.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Carroll.

Posted with permission of the publisher.

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