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Garden City, N.Y. - A federal agency supports a plan to sell New York's Plum Island, home to the country's only laboratory that studies infectious animal diseases that could affect the livestock industry, according to a draft report by the agency.
The General Services Administration's draft environmental impact statement, due to be published Friday in the Federal Register, recommends that the federal government go ahead with the planned sale of the pork chop-shaped 840-acre island off the eastern tip of Long Island. The GSA report could have recommended that no action be taken and that the island remain in the hands of the federal government.
The Department of Homeland Security, which operates the Plum Island Animal Disease lab, is moving forward with plans to open a new $1.14 billion facility in Manhattan, Kan.
The GSA report examines possible future uses for the island, including development of housing, but also considers the possibility that it could be bought and turned into a nature preserve. The report makes no recommendations on its future use, nor does it estimate a sale price. John Dugan, a GSA project manager, said the agency "will let the market determine the value" of the island at some future date.
The GSA will conduct public hearings, likely in September, in both Connecticut and on eastern Long Island, to elicit input on the planned sale, an agency spokesman said. The report noted that whatever future use is decided, the island still would be subject to state regulatory review, as well as local zoning restrictions.
Although questions have been raised about placing a new animal disease laboratory in the nation's so-called "Beef Belt," in Kansas, a government backed committee of the National Research Council issued a report earlier this month saying the United States would have adequate biosecurity protections in place at a new facility.
The Department of Homeland Security asked the National Research Council to review the threats of foreign animal disease, the capabilities needed to address such threats and analyze options for building the lab as proposed or scaling back the size and scope. A third option included keeping the current research lab at Plum Island.
Terry McElwain, chairman of the committee, said it would be up to others to decide which option is best. He said it was unclear why costs have risen from estimates of $450 million when the project was first proposed in 2006 to the current estimate of $1.14 billion. One possibility, he said, was changes in the facility's design to "harden" it to protect against the accidental release of deadly pathogens from a tornado or other natural disaster.
When the plan was originally approved by Congress, it was expected that the sale of Plum Island would cover the costs of building the new facility. Long Island Rep. Timothy Bishop, a longtime opponent of the relocation, has said it is clear that would no longer be the case.
He said there would be "significant cleanup costs the federal government would incur before a sale would be possible," citing the GSA report.
There have been no official estimates of what Plum Island could fetch on the open market. Besides being the site of a 50-year-old animal disease lab, it was used from the late 19th century until the early 1950s as a U.S. Army base; barracks and other facilities from the long-shuttered base, as well as closed laboratory buildings, remain on the island.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said Wednesday that the federal government should retain ownership of the property and convert it to a national park.
"This is a prime example of a federal folly; sacrificing long-term ecological investment for a short-term financial grab," she said. "The government undervalues the worth of preserving this as a national park and the tourism dollars it would bring to Connecticut and New York. Why would they want to give Plum Island away?"