In Norman F. Cantor’s book In the Wake of the Black Plague: the Black Death and the World it Made, I came across the following paragraph:
Anthrax spores buried in the ground remain active for half a century or more as extremely toxic for humans. During World War II both German and Allied biomedical scientists developed anthrax to use in germ warfare. It was employed by neither side in the end, but the Allies tested their variety on an island off the Sottish coast. Fifty years after the war live spores buried in the ground there were discovered and the inhabitants of the island had to be evacuated.
Cantor mentions this incident in passing, as part of his argument that anthrax was a cause of the Black Death, but it got me curious. Fifty years after World War II would be the 1990’s.
I couldn’t find any reference to a Scottish island abandoned in the mid-1990s, but there is the case of Gruinard Island. This tiny island, which is part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, was a testing grounds for weaponized anthrax from 1942 to 1943.
But the island was already vacant. The British government had purchased the island from its owners in 1941 and evacuated the residents in advance of the testing. So at least there’s that.
The British military research facility at Porton Down, the top secret British military complex that rivals Area 51 in secrecy and conspiracy theory generation, monitored the island for 25 years after the tests. When they got around to testing it again in 1979 they found that only the top three inches of ground soil in an area of about three acres around the test site remained contaminated.
Despite the secrecy of the anthrax tests, the scientists actually filmed the tests, and that film has been declassified and can be viewed (where else?) on Youtube. Warning: the video contains pretty graphic images of animal experimentation and autopsies.
Operation Dark Harvest
In 1981 sealed bags of soil from Gruinard Island contaminated with anthrax were left outside of several prominent facilities, including the Porton Down research complex, the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, and the a hotel hosting a Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. This followed messages sent to newspapers claiming that a “team of microbiologists from two universities” along with some locals had collected 300 pounds of contaminated soil from the island. The messages were labelled “Operation Dark Harvest” and demanded the decontamination of Gruinard Island.
The identity of the people behind this operation remains a mystery, but in 2010 the newspaper The Scotsman published an article claiming that “secret files” implicated a shadowy nationalist paramilitary group called the Scottish Civilian Army. This group is thought to be a forerunner of the Scottish National Liberation Army, which would shortly after this time send letter bombs to Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, among other acts.
And yet it wasn’t until 1986 that the government got around to decontaminating the island. Gary Ackerman, a professor of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at SUNY Albany, wrote the entry on Gruinard Island for the book Weapons of Mass Destruction. He describes the decontamination effort as follows:
In 1986, a private contractor was commissioned to decontaminate a total area of just over 10 acres on Gruinard. After spraying a herbicide and burning away the undergrowth, a system consisting of 30 miles of irrigation tubing was used to soak the ground with 280 tons of formaldehyde diluted in 2,000 tons of seawater in amounts of 50 liters per square meter. Topsoil was also removed in sealed containers and decontaminated. After retreating a few areas in July 1987, no viable spores of B. anthracis were detected on the island. As an extra precaution, forty sheep belonging to a local farmer were allowed to graze on the island from May to October 1987 and were closely monitored.
According to the book Reopening Public Facilities After a Biological Attack: A Decision Making Framework, which contains a case history of Gruinard Island, “Subsequent sampling revealed pockets of surviving spores which were than treated with undiluted formalin.”
According to Ackerman, Gruinard today is once again safe for humans and sheep alike:
In its final 1988 report, the IAG concluded that Gruinard Island could be returned to civilian use, and, in May 1990, the island was sold back to the heirs of its original owners. Gruinard Island remained only an interesting historical footnote until the anthrax attacks in November 2001 in the United States, when reporters flocked to Gruinard to recall Britain’s brief foray into biological warfare.
Here is one such article about Gruinard from the BBC dated 8 November, 2001.