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Environmental groups file legal action to prevent sale of Plum Island

Old Saybrook — Calling the effort to protect Plum Island "one of the most important battles of our generation," Connecticut Fund for the Environment announced Friday that it is taking legal action against the federal government over the planned sale of the island. 

The lawsuit is being filed through Save the Sound, the organization's bi-state program in Connecticut and New York.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York by Save the Sound and other environmental groups and individuals, asks a federal judge to prevent the General Services Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from selling Plum Island at an auction to the highest bidder.

The suit alleges the agencies did not comply with federal law during an environmental review process for the proposed sale of the 840-acre island off Long Island, which is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. The agencies are planning to open a new research center in Manhattan, Kan.  

At a press conference in Old Saybrook, Roger Reynolds, legal director for CFE/Save the Sound, said the agencies ignored  concerns expressed by senators and representatives, environmental groups, other federal agencies, individuals and the governors of New York and Connecticut over the planned sale.

Under numerous federal laws, the federal government's natural resources are held in trust for the American people, "they're not assets to be auctioned off for the benefit of the wealthiest developers," Reynolds said. 

He said the island's 670 largely undeveloped acres have become "a remarkable and unique, de facto wildlife refuge," due to public-access restrictions from the animal disease research facility.

"This is a spectacular resource," he added. "It's right in our backyard. It's in the hands of the federal government. If we don't act now, we risk losing this not only for ourselves, but for future generations — and that's a risk we're not willing to take."

Don Strait, president of CFE/Save the Sound, said that Plum Island, at the intersection of the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, possesses wildlife and cultural values, including maritime bluffs, coastal forests, wetlands, rocks that serve as a resting place for seals, about 220 species of birds, and a fort that dates back to the Spanish-American War.

In the lawsuit filed Thursday, plaintiffs ask the judge to invalidate the Department of Homeland Security's decision to sell the island at public auction. The plaintiffs allege, among other complaints, that the federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering the protection of endangered and threatened species, effects on coastal zones and economic impacts of a sale.

The plaintiffs also claim that the agencies didn't properly consider alternatives to selling the entirety of the island to the highest bidder, including the alternative to conserve the parts of the island that were not used for animal disease research.

Spokespersons for GSA and DHS said Friday that the agencies do not comment on pending litigation.

Soundkeeper; Group for the East End; Peconic Baykeeper; author and historian Ruth Ann Bramson; advocate and birder John Turner; and John Potter of Connecticut-Rhode Island Coastal Fly Fishers are joining CFE/Save the Sound in the lawsuit, according to a news release. Their pro bono attorneys are from the law firm Morrison & Foerster.

At Friday's news conference, Potter remarked about seeing terns feeding on fish in the waters offshore from Plum Island.

"For people to develop Plum Island and affect this area, would just be a major-league travesty," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, announced Thursday that the House of Representatives approved an amendment, championed by them and New York Representatives Lee Zeldin and Peter King, to prevent the GSA "from using any of its operational funding to process or complete a sale of Plum Island."  

Connecticut lawmakers and environmental groups issued statements Friday in response to Save the Sound's announcement.

"Plum Island is an ecological gem right in Connecticut's backyard," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said. "Once it's sold to developers, it's gone forever. That's why we need to use every tool at our disposal to protect Plum Island and its natural treasures from development."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said: "Plum Island should be preserved and protected, not violated and diminished. While DHS and GSA are continuing to pursue the senseless sale of Plum Island, precious wildlife — critical to the public interest — is being put at risk. I applaud and support the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Save the Sound for taking swift, necessary legal action. I pledge to continue to fight to help protect Plum Island." 

k.drelich@theday.com

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