Friday afternoon, the ferry from Plum Island brought its cargo of scientists and other workers back to the mainland after another day at the federal animal disease lab there, continuing a six-decade commuting routine now facing an uncertain future as debate about possible sale of the island heats up.
Among the passengers on the two half-hour afternoon ferry trips from the island to docks in Old Saybrook were town resident Bruce Harper, director of science programs at the lab, and Charles Wenderoth, a Mystic resident who is responsible for engineering and environmental projects.
Roughly half the 360 workers at the Plum Island Animal Disease Lab, run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ride the Old Saybrook ferry to their jobs. The other half hail from Long Island, taking a ferry out of Orient Point in the town of Southold.
"It's been a great place to work," said Wenderoth of his 20 years of employment on the 840-acre island, mostly undeveloped except for the portion that comprises the lab. "It's a huge refuge for birds and such, and I think it should be a preserve."
Lately, Plum Island's high-security and sometimes storied lab that is the nation's only facility for research into foot-and-mouth disease, the highly contagious and destructive livestock virus, often shares the spotlight with the island's wildlife in discussions about the property's future.
Even as local officials, environmental and community groups continue to advocate for a reversal of the 2008 decision to close the Plum Island lab and build a new, higher-security lab in Manhattan, Kan., they tout the island's unique flora and fauna, including some 57 rare bird species and the largest seal haulout in Long Island Sound.
The pork chop-shaped island, situated between the southwestern tip of Fishers Island and the northeastern finger of Long Island, also provides habitat for 16 rare plants, one of the highest concentrations in New York state.
"It's a de facto nature preserve," said Scott Russell, town supervisor for Southold, the eastern Long Island community that includes Plum Island in its borders. "Our first position is that Plum Island should stay Plum Island. We want to reiterate the importance of keeping Plum Island a research facility for the federal government. It serves an important purpose. But if that is not going to happen, we'd like to reuse the research labs and keep the de facto preserve."
The town planning board, Russell said, has recently begun the task of establishing zoning regulations for the island in the event it is sold. It was never zoned because federal ownership predated the town's adoption of zoning laws.
The town, Russell said, is opposed to high- or low-density housing development on the island, even though a new federal report proposes both as possibilities.
"We don't have the infrastructure to support any kind of large-scale development," he said. "It's very hard to administer aid and services to an island." The town already faces those difficulties on Fishers Island, he noted. In addition to the island, the 9.5-acre ferry landing in Orient Point would also be put up for sale.
Meetings on proposed sale of island
Russell and others in Southold are among those in both Long Island and Connecticut preparing for two meetings next month about the proposed sale of the island. The meetings are an opportunity for officials and the public to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed sale, a document released last month by the General Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of property disposal. It describes the rationale, impacts and alternatives to the sale. The draft statement, comment opportunities and final statement are required by federal environmental laws for the sale to proceed.
"If the federal government wasn't trying to sell the island, they'd be trying to buy the island," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, one of more than three dozen groups in the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. "This is one of the greatest government follies I've seen in a long time."
State, local and federal efforts and investments have been working for years to purchase and protect more land in the Long Island Sound, named an Estuary of National Significance, for public access and wildlife habitat, she and others noted, so to try to sell a slice of land it already owns makes no sense.
For the upcoming comment sessions, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is preparing to weigh in its view that Plum Island is "extremely important" for migratory birds, marine waterfowl and other wildlife and is designated an Audubon Important Bird Area, said Meagan Racey, service spokeswoman. The Environmental Protection Agency's Long Island Sound Office, likewise, plans to emphasize the island's ecological values and public access potential, said Mark Tedesco, office director.
Connecticut members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition include Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment-Save the Sound. Leah Schmaltz, the organization's director of legislative and legal affairs, said Save the Sound has been focusing on educating the public and the state's congressional delegation in advance of the public meetings.
Along with the job impacts of losing the lab, she said, her group is also concerned that putting the island up for sale would risk losing "some of the most critical habitat on the Sound." And though some may consider it doubtful that a housing development could be built on the site of a former infectious animal disease lab, "you never know," Schmaltz said. "People's memories are short."
Bound by legislation
In the draft statement, the GSA notes that it has been bound by legislation passed by Congress in 2008 to sell Plum Island if the decision was made to build a new lab elsewhere. The most optimistic timeline for opening the new facility, however, is 2021, meaning the Plum Island lab has at least nine more years of operation so that its work, considered essential for the nation's farm economy, continues uninterrupted.
In addition to research and vaccine development for foot-and-mouth virus and other livestock diseases, the lab also conducts about 30,000 diagnostic tests per year for foreign and domestic animal diseases, and runs education programs for veterinarians.
Given that funding for the $1.4 billion Kansas lab, to be called the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility and located at Kansas State University, has yet to be authorized, some consider the GSA's steps toward sale of Plum Island premature at best.
"If it doesn't happen or it's delayed, all of a sudden they're going to have to lease the island back," Wenderoth said.
Fellow lab employee Harper said design work on the new lab is proceeding, even if funding for construction has yet to be found. In the meantime, he noted, Plum Island scientists are continuing working on vaccines, training veterinarians and taking on new projects, seemingly unaffected by the debates about the fate of the lab and the island.
"We're actually doing more work there now than we were five years ago," he said, noting the May licensing of a new vaccine developed by lab scientists.
The new lab that would replace the Plum Island facility would be built with higher-level bio-security features, enabling research in a wider array of animal diseases. Unlike foot-and-mouth and other diseases now studied on Plum Island, some of these are zoonotic - diseases that can be transmitted to humans. No such facility currently exists in the United States, and increasing risks due to global trade and terrorist threats make it necessary for such a lab to be established both to prevent and respond to future outbreaks, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Animal diseases lab in the middle of cattle country?
While few doubt the need for such a lab, groups based in Long Island and Connecticut, as well as those near Manhattan, Kan., question the wisdom of locating it in the middle of cattle country. The Department of Homeland Security, for its part, holds that it is committed to the Kansas location, selected after a three-year process. On its website, the agency states that it will not revisit the issue or seek alternatives, and that with modern technology, a highly safe, secure facility can be created.
That doesn't stop groups such as R-CALF USA, which represents calf producers, from continuing to lobby against locating the lab in Kansas.
"R-CALF has done everything in its power to discourage moving a lab for the study of foreign animal diseases to the middle of cattle country," said Max Thornsberry, veterinarian and chairman of the group's Animal Health Committee. "It just doesn't make any common sense. We have a perfectly functioning lab. If you need to update it, update it."
Like R-CALF, the grassroots group No NBAF in Kansas believes the risks of diseases escaping from the facility and infecting livestock - and people, in the case of diseases like Rift Valley Fever that would be studied - are just too great in a populated area in close proximity to cattle farms like Manhattan, compared to an island in Long Island Sound.
"Simply having it on an island can make a huge difference in the risk to the economy" from diseases that could escape and infect livestock, said Tom Manney, a member of the No NBAF group's steering committee and retired chairman of KSU's biosafety institute. "It should remain on Plum Island."
In addition to arguments about the risks, others are calling attention to the 24 contaminated sites on Plum Island that the draft report says need to be studied and will probably need remediation. Randall Parsons, conservation finance and policy advisor at The Nature Conservancy's Long Island office, said there is a fundamental flaw in the notion that the island could be sold and used to finance the new lab.
"The problem with seeing Plum Island as a cash cow for the federal government is the cleanup, and the fact that Southold doesn't want it used for residential development," said Parsons, whose group recently worked with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation on a report documenting what's known about the island's biodiversity.
Ideally, Parsons said, the island should be put under formal management as wildlife habitat, with some limited public access if possible, and the lab kept open and upgraded.
"It would be fundamentally a mistake to take it out of public ownership," he said.