Questions about Plum Island's future unresolved

As groups hoping to preserve Plum Island as a wildlife habitat await an overdue federal report on its proposed sale, questions are still being raised about the plan to close the animal-disease lab located there and to build a replacement lab in Kansas.

The U.S. General Services Administration, the agency in charge of the possible sale or other future use of the island, is preparing a draft environmental analysis, called an Environmental Impact Statement, on the island's proposed sale. Congress voted in 2008 to sell Plum Island if a new lab site could be found, and in 2009 a site near Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., was identified.

The animal-disease lab has been on Plum Island, part of the town of Southold, N.Y., in Long Island Sound since 1954. The island is about 10 miles from the Connecticut coast. Scientists there research livestock vaccines, foot-and-mouth disease and other high-threat animal diseases. It is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

The GSA report was scheduled to be released this past summer. John Dugan, spokesman for the GSA's Boston office, said Monday that the draft document is in the final stages of preparation. "We ... hope to have it on the streets within the next month or so," Dugan said in an email message.

The document's release could be significant in determining the future of the 840-acre island, because those interested in the island would be able to comment on and challenge the findings before the draft document becomes final. The final version will provide the basis for the federal government's decision on whether to offer the island for sale to a private owner or turn it over to a different new use, such as a wildlife refuge.

The Preserve Plum Island Coalition, comprising environmental and citizen groups in Long Island and Connecticut, wants the island to become a wildlife sanctuary and public recreation area rather than being sold.

Southold is also awaiting the release of the draft document, said Heather Lanza, the town's planning director. "We've been told so many different things about the timing of that," she said of the draft impact statement.

The town told the federal government that it is preparing to establish zoning rules for the island. The federal government's ownership of the island predated the adoption of local zoning rules. The new zoning district would allow for renewable energy and other types of research facilities where the current labs are located. It would also protect the historic lighthouse and fort as well as wetlands and wildlife habitats, according to the town's letter to the GSA.

"But we're still finding it hard to believe they're going to move the lab," Lanza said.

Meanwhile, in Kansas

About $40 million has been spent so far on planning and acquiring a site for a Kansas facility, said Oliver Longwell, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., whose district includes Plum Island. But funding for actual construction is far from certain.

The Senate passed a Homeland Security appropriations bill in September that did not include the $150 million sought by the Department of Homeland Security for the new lab, citing a need for completion of a risk assessment of the proposed new site. The House had approved the allocation, but that Senate was not satisfied, Longwell said.

"The criteria had not been met to be proved it can be built safely," he said. Bishop, he said, is "going to keep fighting for Plum Island" and thinks it a better location because it is farther from major populations of livestock and people.

"Right now the island is functioning very well as a bird sanctuary, and it's very valuable in that regard," Longwell added.

About 150 Connecticut residents work on the island, commuting via ferry from Old Saybrook. The 180 New York residents who work there take a ferry from a 9-acre terminal at Orient Point, L.I.

Longwell said he expects Congress to take up the funding issue again next month. The risk assessment, however, is not scheduled to be competed until January, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Longwell also said he doubts the sale of the island could generate enough money to cover the costs of the new lab, because of the environmental remediation that would be needed and other issues with its decades of use as a biohazard lab. The increasing costs of the new lab are also a significant obstacle, given efforts to rein in federal spending, he said.

Even as planning continues for a new facility, the federal government is investing in the existing lab. Peter Boogaard, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Monday that two new animal rooms for cattle vaccine trials were recently built, and water supply and electrical distribution systems were updated.

The work was needed because while the new lab is under construction, the Plum Island lab "will remain open and ongoing maintenance, and improvements are necessary to keep the facility operational," he said.

The Homeland Security department's timeline calls for construction of the new lab to begin in February and be completed by July 2018. The closing of Plum Island and transition to the new lab would be done by 2020.

j.benson@theday.com

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