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As planned sale of Plum Island generates interest, livestock disease research continues

Southold, N.Y. — The federal agency charged with selling Plum Island has been receiving eight to 10 calls per month from people interested in the planned sale of the 840-acre property where the federal animal disease research laboratories have been located for the past 60 years.

John Dugan, project manager for the General Services Administration, said inquiries about the sale have come from a wide range of individuals and interests, but declined to characterize them further.

His comments came during a tour and status update for the media of the Plum Island facility on Thursday.

“We’re essentially going to be selling a small city,” said Dugan, explaining that the sale would include all the support services and equipment for the island, including ferries and the 9-acre ferry landing in Orient Point, N.Y., fire and emergency medical buildings and vehicles, wastewater treatment plant and other facilities that allow the current lab to be a self-contained operation.

The agency maintains a website with information about the island and the planned sale at http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/180067.

The agency has been directed by Congress to sell the entire island, which is part of the town of Southold. It is located in Long Island Sound between Orient Point and Fishers Island.

The island is slated to be sold once the $1.3 billion new National Bio and Agri-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan, Kan., is completed.

Groundbreaking for the Kansas facility took place earlier this year, and construction is expected to be completed within five years.

The labs, which currently employ 400 scientists and other workers, would complete the move to the new facility by 2023, said Larry Barrett, center director.

About half of those employed at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center live in Connecticut, commuting there on a ferry that leaves from Old Saybrook, and the other half live in New York State.

Barrett said the pending move has not altered the pace of the work going on at Plum Island.

“We haven’t slowed down on our research at all,” he said.

Nor has the pending shutdown stopped investment in the current facility. Construction of a $30 million thermal wastewater treatment plant is underway to replace an existing facility. The plant is used to treat about 60,000 to 80,000 gallons of wastewater used in the labs daily with a specialized process using heat to kill any infectious viruses.

Research at the lab focuses on foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious livestock illness, as well as classical swine fever and African swine fever.

Luis Rodriguez, lead for agricultural research services at Plum Island, said a recently patented vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease that was developed there represents a significant breakthrough in controlling the disease, which is not present in the United States but is endemic in 100 countries in the world.

“This is the first licensed foot-and-mouth disease vaccine made in the United States,” he said, adding that the lab is working in partnership with the animal pharmaceutical company Zoetis Inc. to make it commercially available.

Because of the novel structure of the virus used in the new vaccine, immunized cattle can be distinguished through a blood test from infected cattle — something that was not possible with other vaccines, he said.

The new lab in Kansas will be about 580,000 square feet, more than double the size of the Plum Island lab. The existing lab houses up to 100 cattle and pigs used in the research in secure, enclosed building attached to the lab.

One of its major improvements over the existing facility will be that it will have higher-level biosafety labs where research on zoonotic diseases — those transmitted from animals to humans — can be conducted, Rodriguez said. That type of research cannot be done at Plum Island.

“For the first time we will have the capability to work on Ebola and rift valley fever and other zoonotic diseases,” he said.

Increasing globalization of trade, along with climate change, he added, have increased the threats of diseases spreading to new parts of the globe through goods and animals adapting to new areas, making facilities like Plum Island and the new facility in Kansas more important than ever.

The planned sale of the island has generated opposition from more than 50 environmental groups, individuals and lawmakers on Long Island and Connecticut, who have formed the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

The group advocates that the island, where endangered roseate terns and piping plovers nest, be conserved as open space rather than sold for development. The lab facility occupies about 20 acres of the island, with much of the rest undeveloped.

Jason Golden, spokesman for the lab, said a four-seasons study of the island’s environmental assets began in March and is expected to be completed by March 2016.

It is being done by the Nature Conservancy and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation through the New York Natural Heritage Program.

“We’re giving them access,” he said. “Once the study is completed, it will be released for public consumption.”

Dugan said the GSA has analyzed three options for the property: adaptive reuse of the labs; conservation preservation; and commercial development. It has not chosen a preferred option, he said.

“We’re now starting to ramp up our marketing of the property,” he said.

As part of the process, he said, the GSA will be meeting with stakeholder groups, including potential developers, environmental groups and education and research organizations, to get their input on how the property should be marketed for the various possible scenarios.

“That will inform our sale process,” he said. Before the property is offered for sale, he added, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the lab, would remediate any contamination.

“We’re still working on the closeout actions,” he said. “Any contamination issues will have to be addressed.”

The future sale may come with restrictions on the property due to the presence of endangered species, remaining contamination that cannot be remediated, and preservation of historic assets such as the remains of Fort Terry, he said.

He said no appraisal has been done on the island, which he said cannot be compared to any other property the GSA has sold.

“It’s unique," he said.

John Kelly, director for property disposal and utilization for the GSA’s regional office, said the law requires that the property be sold to the highest bidder, and that the island and all the associated equipment and property would be sold as a single unit.

“We have one opportunity to sell this island,” he said. “The island operates as a unit, and it wouldn’t be wise to chop it up.”

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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