February 15, 2004
Heaping More Dirt On Plum I.
By JOHN RATHER
FOR seven years, Michael Christopher Carroll, a lawyer from Bellmore, researched the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the former Department of Agriculture laboratory situated on 840-acre Plum Island, less than two miles off the tip of Long Island's North Fork. Now, after hundreds of hours spent poring over government documents and interviewing scientists, workers, government officials, journalists and others involved with or knowledgeable about the island laboratory, Mr. Carroll has turned his findings into ''Lab 257,'' published by William Morrow and scheduled to appear in bookstores on Tuesday. Mr. Carroll argues that the laboratory, which was taken over by the Department of Homeland Security in June, is a biological time bomb with an appalling safety record, a tempting target known to terrorists and a grave but little-recognized threat to the largest population center in the United States.
Mr. Carroll also writes that his research suggests that the laboratory could be linked to the outbreak of Lyme disease and West Nile virus in the United States. But he offers no smoking gun, just the argument that a leaky laboratory studying the world's most dangerous animal diseases would seem a plausible source of new or foreign ailments in nearby human populations, especially when the transmitters of the disease are ticks or mosquitoes, which feed indiscriminately on animals or humans.
Told of some of Mr. Carroll's conclusions last week, government officials, including a former laboratory director, said the author was vastly off the mark and had written what appeared to be a book of science fiction.
''Mr. Carroll is a Baron Munchausen, or else he has been talking to him,'' said Roger G. Breeze, who was the laboratory director from 1987 to 1995 and is now leaving a post as an associate administrator in the Agricultural Research Service. ''You don't sell many books by concluding that federal officials are doing a really good job,'' he said.
Despite this and other denials and disavowals, Mr. Carroll's 289-page book seems unlikely to bolster Plum Island's reputation on the East End, where the jobs provided by the lab have long been balanced by questions about the safety of operations there. The book arrives as the Department of Homeland Security continues to develop the 50-year-old laboratory's new focus of protecting against agricultural terrorism. The Agriculture Department remains on the island as a tenant.
The book also raises wider concerns. Mr. Carroll writes that in 2002 American forces in Afghanistan found a dossier of information about the Plum Island laboratory in the Kabul residence of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a Western-educated nuclear physicist and former chairman of the Pakistan Nuclear Energy Commission who has been identified by American officials as an associate of Osama bin Laden.