'SPOOKY' Island Stars In Budget Fight

Andrew Grossman
Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—For decades, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has been a source of anxiety, intrigue and rumor for Long Island's East End.

Located on a quotation-mark shaped island at the mouth of Long Island Sound, politicians have called it a potential terrorist target, conspiracy theorists have weaved intricate plots around it, and locals once speculated that an unidentifiable animal carcass dubbed the Montauk Monster found on the beach in 2008 came from the facility.

Now, the island is the latest source of political tension between New York and the American heartland—namely, Kansas, which wants the research center and its high-paying jobs.

Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been trying to close the center, where researchers study rare, exotic and potentially dangerous animal diseases. Its replacement was to open in 2015 in Manhattan, Kan.—delighting Republican officials there and infuriating the Democrats of New York.

Now, President Barack Obama stepped into the fight. In his Feb. 13 budget proposal, he doesn't include funding for the replacement lab in Kansas. Instead, he called for more study of the new center's safety.

That angered Kansans but gave hope to Long Island politicians who are trying to keep disease research—and the jobs that come with it—in their backyard.

"There's 200 jobs at that facility and I want to protect those jobs," said Rep. Tim Bishop, the Southampton Democrat whose district includes Plum Island. "Two hundred jobs in the year-round economy of eastern Long Island is a lot of jobs."

For more than five decades, scientists with federal security clearances have taken daily ferries from Connecticut and Orient Point, Long Island, to Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Once there, they step into laboratories that the Department of Homeland Security says are "biologically isolated" to study animal sicknesses such as foot-and-mouth disease and develop ways to protect American livestock from dangerous ailments.

The Department of Homeland Security decided to move the research to Kansas three years ago. Officials have said the Plum Island facility is outdated and that they need more capacity to study diseases that affect large animals—a category that includes humans. Plum Island is a bio-safety level 3 facility, which means germs dangerous to people can't be studied there. The Kansas facility would be bio-safety level 4, making it equipped to do research on more dangerous diseases.

Plum Island's neighbors on Long Island's bucolic North Fork oppose upgrading the security level. Kansas, though, is fighting for the pathogens that its politicians say are rightfully theirs. They're confident that Congress will eventually appropriate money to build the research center there. And they're not worried about diseases infecting Kansan cattle and swine. They say they're confident that the safety measures would protect them.

"We understand the importance better than anyone of protecting the food supply and of protecting the American people from any threats," said Rep. Lynn Jenkins, the Kansas Republican whose district includes the proposed new facility. "I think some of us are just confused about [New Yorkers'] interest in this given that they have an outdated, Cold War-era facility."

Mr. Bishop and others who want the center on Plum Island argue the $1 billion cost of building a facility in Kansas is too expensive and that it's unwise to study diseases that kill livestock in a region full of that livestock.

New York often has to battle its western counterparts for resources in the nation's capital, on matters ranging from homeland security funding to money to build mass transit instead of highways. The research center could still go to Kansas.

The Plum Island fight is different because one of Mr. Obama's own agencies, the Homeland Security Department, proposed the move. And budget fights rarely involve the spooky questions surrounding Plum Island. Jesse Ventura, the former Minnesota governor and professional wrestler, gave a wide audience to the center's critics when he featured Plum Island on his show, "Conspiracy Theory." Novelist Nelson DeMille's 1997 book, "Plum Island," examines claims that scientists are developing biological weapons at the facility. (The theories are denied by the laboratory.)

Such concerns mean little to Scott Russell, supervisor of the town of Southold, which includes Plum Island. Long Islanders are concerned about jobs.

"They're a good employer for this town," Mr. Russell said. "I think you can get lost in some of the mystique, but we try not to succumb to that."

If Plum Island's labs do move to Kansas, the federal government would likely sell it. It might generate a significant sum of money if developers could find a way around its creepy reputation and convince buyers that their dogs wouldn't be at risk of catching the odd pig-borne disease lingering in the woods. Much of the island is untouched by humans, and there's a strip of sandy beaches.

But Mr. Russell doesn't want it turned into a summer destination like Block Island or Shelter Island. The rural North Fork of Long Island, he said, doesn't have the infrastructure to support more carloads of vacationers headed to ferries at Orient Point. He hopes another group of researchers or a university can find a use for it.