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Stop study, save Plum Island sanctuary

Published October 02. 2012 4:00AM

Why is one federal agency studying the idea of selling Plum Island for residential and perhaps resort development when another federal agency has already cited the importance of preserving it due to its great ecological value? Because Congress gave the order that it does so, of course.

This is your government in action.

The 843-acre pork-chop shaped island, 10 miles off the Connecticut coast and just 1.5 miles from Orient Point on Long Island, is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Laboratory. The United States opened the facility there in 1954, concluding an island was a safe place to study animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth and African swine fever, which have the potential to devastate livestock and endanger food supplies. Because of the potential for terrorists intentionally infecting livestock, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 took control of the property, while the Department of Agriculture continues to carry out the research.

Because the laboratory takes up only a small portion of the island, while at the same time assuring the rest remains undeveloped, Plum Island is a wildlife haven, home to more than 100 species of birds, including two federally threatened species, Piping Plovers and Roseate Terns. It provides Long Island Sounds' largest seal colony.

In 2006 the Long Island Sound Stewardship Initiative, endorsed by environmental agencies in Connecticut and New York and by regional administrators for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, called for preservation of Plum and the adjacent Great Gull and Little Gull islands as wildlife habitats because of their "exemplary" ecological value.

But in September 2008, Congress passed legislation requiring the sale of the Plum Island property if homeland security decided to move the laboratory elsewhere. In January 2009 the DHS decided that the laboratory be moved as part of a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. The primary reason provided for the move, beyond job creation in Kansas, is that the nation needs to study contagious diseases that could move from animals to humans. The Plum Island facility does not have that ability or necessary security and the DHS considers retrofitting the nearly 60-year-old laboratory impractical.

Though Congress has yet to fund the Kansas lab, and it will not be ready until at least 2021, and though some officials in Kansas don't want it built in the middle of cattle country, the General Services Administration (GSA) has been diligently following its orders to prepare for the island's public sale. Most recently GSA released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). It offers as possible reuse of the island low-density development, with 90 residential units, or high-density development with up to 750 residential units, or purchase by a group for conservation and preservation.

The GSA does not recommend one alternative over another, but instead recommends the sale at auction and letting the market determine the island's fate. This is insanity, and the Town of Southold on Long Island, which the island is part of, has recognized it as such. Land-use boards there are preparing regulations that would restrict uses to a research facility, historic preservation and wildlife refuge should it pass into private hands.

It is highly unlikely anyone would ever develop Plum Island for resort housing. In any event, the government should not even invite such an opportunity. The GSA study is a waste of time and money. What Congress has done it needs to undo. The Connecticut delegation should pursue legislation that will keep Plum Island in federal hands or, alternatively, turn it over to a conservation group, maintaining it in perpetuity as a nature preserve, regardless of the fate of the laboratory.

The GSA will accept public comments on its EIS on Oct. 17 at Saybrook Point Inn, 2 Bridge St., Old Saybrook. The program begins at 6 p.m. It will be a good opportunity for the public to express opposition to selling and developing Plum Island. The public can also submit written comments at www.plumislandny.com.

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