Government assessing potential fate of Plum Island

A fishing boat plies the waters near the Plum Island Lighthouse. The island is home to the high-security Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
A fishing boat plies the waters near the Plum Island Lighthouse. The island is home to the high-security Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Day file photo

The federal government will study the potential environmental impacts of selling Plum Island to a private owner for redevelopment or keeping the 840-acre island in federal hands after the research lab for highly infectious animal diseases is moved to Manhattan, Kan.

In a notice published Thursday in the Federal Register, the General Services Administration announced that it would undertake an Environmental Impact Statement to guide the anticipated sale of Plum Island and a 9.5-acre support facility in Orient Point, N.Y.

The island, located in Long Island Sound about 1.5 miles from Orient Point, has been the site of the high-security Plum Island Animal Disease Center since 1954. It is the only national lab for research into foot-and-mouth virus, which is highly contagious to livestock, as well as classical swine fever, vesicular stomatitis virus and foreign animal diseases. It was run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture until 2003, when it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security.

Paula Santangelo, spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, said the labs at the facility are still operating at full capacity. The Homeland Security Department states on its Web site that the target date for the opening of the Kansas lab is 2014.

While many of the scientists and support staff who work on Plum Island live on Long Island and access the labs from a ferry based in Orient Point, another group lives in southeastern Connecticut and uses a ferry based in Old Saybrook.

No appraisal of the property has been done, Santangelo said. The agency plans to open an office in Southold, N.Y., where potential buyers can obtain information about the property, she said. Along with the lab, the island also has a lighthouse dating from 1869 and the remains of an Army base, Fort Terry.

As part of the process, the public will be invited this spring to meetings in Old Saybrook and Southold to give input about issues that should be considered in the environmental study and the possible sale. Notices will be issued two weeks before the meetings.

Meetings will also be scheduled in the two towns this summer for the public to review and comment on a draft version of the environmental study before it is made final. The study would describe all the contamination issues so any potential buyers "have full information about what is there," Santangelo said.

The study may also help determine whether the federal government undertakes any cleanup of significant contamination or identifies parts of the island that should not be disturbed, according to the Federal Register notice.

The decision to abandon the 50-year-old lab for a replacement in Kansas was announced in January 2009 following a study of four potential sites undertaken the previous year. Critics of the decision have argued that moving the lab to an inland facility is dangerous and unnecessary and that the Kansas location was chosen after intense political pressure from two Republican senators and former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius, a Democrat who now heads the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Department of Homeland Security, however, said the aging facility on Plum Island is becoming very costly to maintain. In addition, the current labs are too small for the "increasing levels of research and development needed to meet the growing concerns about accidental or intentional introduction of foreign animal diseases into this country," according to information on the department's Web site.

The National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, as the Kansas lab would be called, would be equipped to operate as a Biosafety Level 4 facility, able to handle the most exotic and dangerous agents. About 250 to 350 scientists plus support staff would work there.

The Plum Island facility has Biosafety Level 2 and Biosafety Level 3 labs.

Among groups interested in what ultimately happens to Plum Island is the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit that operates in Long Island and Connecticut. Executive Director Adrienne Esposito said that, ideally, her organization would like to see the island cleaned up with portions made accessible to the public for recreation and others preserved for wildlife. She noted, however, that with decades of federal use by the Army and then the lab, there is likely to be significant contamination that could be very costly to remediate.

"The more they look, the more they're going to find," she said. "We'd like to see a complete environmental assessment, with a lot of groundwater testing. But we would hope remediation efforts would be comprehensive and successful and that the island could be turned into something beautiful again."

The Kansas facility would be located near Kansas State University's Manhattan campus. Construction would take about five years, and it would take about three years to close the Plum Island lab and transfer the operations, according to the Homeland Security Department Web site.

The department said it is investing $50 million for long-term maintenance and improvements to Plum Island to keep it operating until the new facility is ready.

j.benson@theday.com

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