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The mysterious lab off New York's shore

'Lab 257' offers horror stories -- and dispute

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN


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Department of Agriculture
Biological Warfare
Science and Technology

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Oops.

That's the word that comes to mind when reading Michael Carroll's thoroughly nerve-wracking book, "Lab 257" (William Morrow), about the federal germ facility on Plum Island. The island sits off the eastern tip of Long Island's North Fork and it's home to some of the deadliest microbes festering on the planet.

According to Carroll's book, the island -- and laboratory -- are also home to slipshod construction, poor safeguards, and lax security. "Lab 257" claims errors at the facility caused Lyme disease outbreaks and health problems for the local population -- claims disputed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which ran the facility until recently.

In a recent interview, Carroll defended his book.

"I'm no scientist, and this isn't a textbook," said Carroll during an interview. He maintained that the point of the book was to expose the potential hazards of a poorly run institution; he has nothing against better-run, more secure institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The best offense is a good defense," he said. "You have to know how things interact, germs, bacteria, etc. You [just] don't need to create millions of them to know how to create them and make them more virulent.

"I don't want to shut it down," he added. "I just don't want it to continue as it currently is."

Dealing with biological agents

However, Carroll, an attorney, admitted to The Associated Press that he has no direct evidence of his book's horrific tales, just years of research. "Every investigation is about connecting the dots," he said.

Others disagree with his stories.

"I personally just don't think that has any merit," David Weld, the executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, told the AP.

Plum Island
The facility at Plum Island, now overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

And Maureen McCarthy, an official of the Department of Homeland Security -- which now oversees the lab -- told the AP, "I guess my first impression is you can't judge a book by its cover."

Plum Island's history can provoke concern. When it was founded, after just after World War II, the lab was a research center for biological warfare.

The U.S. Army and the Department of Agriculture, in particular, were instrumental in the design and building of Lab 257 and its companion, Lab 101, on the island. Like other government scientific facilities, it's had an aura of mystery: Plum Island earns a mention in "The Silence of the Lambs," and thriller writer Nelson DeMille set a novel there.

The Army later handed over control of the facility to the USDA.

Carroll noted the biological weapons being developed were not for use against humans, but rather against the human food supply, hence the classification as an animal disease lab.

"Plum Island and Lab 257, as it was designed by the army, was not specifically geared towards germ warfare against people, but against food," Carroll stated. "It was designed to destroy any animal that could be deemed a food animal. ... [The] thinking at the time was that even better than germ warfare against people, germ warfare against food would also starve civilian populations as well, which would force them into submission."

However, germs are pesky critters, and Carroll believes the facility dubbed "the safest lab in the world" was in fact a series of problems kept hidden.

Carroll: 'Safety completely went downhill'

Much of Carroll's research was done through interviews with nearby residents, as well as documents and reports. While the government was "cooperative at the outset," Carroll said (he was granted exclusive access to the island six times), he was later denied access to the facility by the Washington office of the USDA.

Nevertheless, he said he learned plenty, particularly about the safety of the labs.

"For decades, this was a place that put bread on the table and provided good federal benefits for [workers]," he said. "So for many years, the word on the street ... it was sort of, 'loose lips sink ships' and 'let's keep this thing quiet.' But what happened was, after [the government] privatized the island and they stripped all these workers of their benefits ... one person was doing the job of two and three people ... safety completely went downhill. And people began to talk about it."

Carroll isn't the first to offer criticism. In 2002, after a power outage on the island, New York's WABC-TV did a story on whether containment procedures worked; several employees questioned the lab's safety. In 2003, the General Accounting Office listed security problems on the island, partially prompted by a whistleblower, Jim McCoy, who protested the management of a private concern.

DHS official McCarthy told the AP that Lab 257 was closed in 1995, and "right now it poses no health hazard." Moreover, a Department of Agriculture spokesperson, Sandy Miller-Hays, told the news service that -- counter to Carroll's claims -- Lyme disease was never studied at Plum Island.

If you go to the Plum Island Web site, you'll find little indication regarding Carroll's concerns. Indeed, the main page has a message from the USDA: "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."

Carroll said, at bottom, he merely wants to raise an alarm -- to, at the very least, improve the security at Plum Island in this age of terror alerts.

"I'm hoping that [this book] is a call to action," he said. "A few months ago I was in a boat taking photos for this book, and we were about 20 feet from shore, and no one said boo," Carroll said, shaking his head. "Today, as one of the workers said to me, 'Mike, two Eskimos in a kayak could take Plum Island.' "

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