Speakers: Preserve Plum Island as habitat

Old Saybrook – Most of the 840 acres of Plum Island should be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary and public recreation area rather than being sold to the highest bidder when the federal animal disease laboratory there moves to Kansas, representatives of conservation groups told federal officials handling the sale of the island Wednesday.

In the first of two meetings to hear from the public about the planned sale, representatives of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, the Fishers Island Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter noted that the island has been identified by state and federal environmental and wildlife agencies as one of the most important bird habitats in Long Island Sound, and that selling the entire property for development would contradict that finding. At most, only the portion already developed for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Center should be sold for redevelopment, they said.

In addition, a group of two dozen environmental organizations, most based on Long Island, has formed the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, Marguerite Purnell, director of the Fishers Island Conservancy, said during the meeting at Old Saybrook Middle School. Officials from the Government Services Administration, which is handling the sale, and the Homeland Security Administration, which oversees the lab in cooperation with the agriculture department, is will conduct another meeting tonight at 6 p.m. at the Greenport Public School in Greenport, Long Island, to hear from the public about the sale. Federal officials said they plan to complete an environmental review of the impact of the proposed sale of the island and a 9-acre ferry terminal and support facility in Orient Point, Long Island, by this summer. Congress voted in 2008 to sell Plum Island if a new site for the animal lab is found, and in 2009, the homeland security department identified Manhattan, Kansas, as the new home for the lab. The new facility is scheduled to be completed in the next few years.

One speaker at Wednesday’s meeting, Christopher Mitchell of Lyme, said that the loss of local jobs that would result from the lab’s planned move has been all but forgotten in discussions about the island’s future. Mitchell is one of about 150 Connecticut residents employed directly in the lab or as contract support workers there. Another 180 employees live in New York.

“It is a beautiful island. I can respect why the federal government wants to sell it,” said Mitchell, who works on the ferry that takes staff from Old Saybrook to the island daily. “But it seems to miss the human element of a lot of people losing their jobs.”

Also speaking at the meeting was Matthew Fritz, special assistant to Gov. M. Jodi Rell. He said the governor is concerned that too little is known about the type of work that went on at the lab to assess how the proposed sale and redevelopment would impact Connecticut, its coastal resources and development of an emergency response plan.


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