Now, the public is being asked for its input on what should become of the mysterious island a mile and a half off Long Island's north fork. The federal government is moving its research operations to a new lab in Manhattan, Kan., and putting up a "For Sale" sign at Plum Island.
Representatives from several environmental groups spoke out against the planned sale Thursday night at a meeting held by the General Services Administration, which has responsibility for selling the property. The agency held the community meeting in a school gymnasium eight miles from the island, kicking off an environmental review process that is expected to be completed by the fall.
"The island has a remarkable environmental and ecological value," said John Turner, who said he represented a coalition of civic groups calling themselves "Preserve Plum Island."
Randy Parsons of the Nature Conservancy drew applause from the estimated 50 people at the meeting when he suggested, "If we didn't already own it, wouldn't we want to buy it?"
Besides the laboratory, the island is home to a defunct U.S. Army base and a charming little lighthouse that looks out onto Long Island Sound. And, as fictional FBI Agent Clarice Starling told "Silence of the Lambs" villain Hannibal Lecter: "There's a very, very nice beach."
Author Nelson DeMille, whose 1997 book "Plum Island" featured a fictional detective investigating the murders of island biologists, told The Associated Press this week he wants the government to retain ownership.
"The most obvious thing to do would be to make it into a federal park and nature preserve," he said. "You could turn the lab into a visitors center."
Several speakers at the hearing also said they preferred the island be retained as a nature preserve, including a representative of the Audubon Society, who urged a thorough study of the bird population.
DeMille noted a long-repeated fear that the lab could be "a terrorist target waiting to happen."
The U.S. Government Accountability Office told Congress in 2007 that Plum Island's vulnerability was apparent after the 9/11 terror attacks, and that security had been tightened to help protect animal health and reduce the possibility of bioterrorism.
Plum Island scientists research pathogens like foot-and-mouth disease, which is highly contagious to livestock and could cause catastrophic economic losses and imperil the nation's food supply.
"Other pathogens known to have been maintained at Plum Island could also cause illness and death in humans," the GAO said.
Security on the island consists of security patrols, checkpoints, cameras, radar, locks and fences, said Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
Ret. Col. David Huxsoll, a veterinarian who served as the lab's director from 2000 to 2003, said anthrax was among the diseases studied at Plum Island. "It was done in containment," he said, adding there were concerns anthrax could be used as a weapon to target the livestock industry.
"If it ever broke out in the cattle industry in this country, it would be disastrous," he said.
Before any discussions about development at Plum Island can proceed, officials must first determine the extent of any damage to the soil and water, environmentalist Adrienne Esposito said.
"Government facilities operate cloaked in secrecy," said Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. The group successfully lobbied in 2008 to kill a proposed Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal in Long Island Sound.
U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose district includes Plum Island, is not convinced moving is a good idea. He said in a letter to a House homeland security subcommittee this week that the sale of Plum Island could fetch $50 million to $80 million - not counting cleanup costs. Bishop said that would hardly cover the costs of building a new $650 million lab.
"Rather than pour hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars down a sinkhole in Kansas and open the Pandora's Box of decommissioning Plum Island, we should ... make use of existing facilities that continue to serve this nation well," Bishop said.
Last year, Congress appropriated $32 million for a new 520,000-square-foot National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas, most of it for planning and design. It will allow research on diseases that can be passed from animals to humans, something currently not done at Plum Island.
A safety study of the new site is under way after some questioned the wisdom of opening an animal disease lab in the so-called Beef Belt.
Gary DePersia, a top real estate broker in the Hamptons on Long Island's south fork, said the possibilities for the island are nearly unlimited. "It could make an awesome resort, with condos and room for a golf course," DePersia said.
The Army ran the site as Fort Terry from 1897 until after World War II. The U.S. Army Chemical Corps had jurisdiction from 1951 to 1954, when it was officially deactivated.
In the book, "Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons Since 1945," Piers Millett wrote in a chapter on anti-animal biological weapons that Fort Terry's mission was "to establish and pursue a program of research and development of certain anti-animal (BW) agents."
John van Courtland Moon, an author and history professor emeritus at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, said his research has found that animal testing for germ warfare was conducted at Plum Island in the 1950s.
"Exactly what took place? I would imagine sheep, I would imagine goats and rats and rabbits" had been tested, he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where the U.S. Army Chemical Corps is based, said officials there were looking into the historical record but had no immediate comment.
Esposito said the government's timetable to complete an Environmental Impact Statement by the fall was "somewhat delusional."
"This is a rush job instead of a thoughtful, meaningful process," she said. "That's a shame and we're not going to let it happen."