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Zeldin mounts new effort to halt sale of Plum Island

May 2, 2017
In The News

Rep. Lee Zeldin has reintroduced legislation to prevent the federal government from selling Plum Island to the highest bidder, as is required by current law.

The bipartisan measure passed the House of Representatives in the last session of Congress but stalled in the Senate. 

The Plum Island Preservation Act (H.R. 2182) would require the Government Accountability Office, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, which currently owns the island, to formulate a comprehensive plan for the future of the island, Zeldin said in a press release.

The bill requires the plan focus on conservation, education, and research and include alternative uses for the island including a transfer of ownership to another federal agency, the state or local government, a nonprofit, or a combination of agencies.

Zeldin said protecting the 840-acre Plum Island, located about a mile off Orient Point, has been one of his highest priorities in Congress.

“Plum Island is beloved by our local community because it is a critical cultural, historical, and natural resource,” Zeldin said.

Federal legislation passed in 2008 requires the federal government to sell the island to the highest bidder. The Department of Homeland Security, which operates the the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center, is building a more modern, more secure Biosafety Level 4 facility in Manhattan, Kansas and plans to wind down operations at Plum Island. The National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas is scheduled to be fully operational in December 2022.

Southold Town enacted zoning code changes in 2013 that greatly restricted development on the island outside of a research district that encompasses the current federal facility. Minimum lot size in the research district is 125 acres and about 700 of the island’s 840 acres would be a preserve.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell recalled last year that when he heard Congress wanted to sell the island, “I thought, ‘Who would be crazy enough to buy Plum Island?’ It was around that time I got a call from Donald Trump’s representative.” Trump was interested in developing a resort and golf course there, Russell said.

The Plum Island facility was established in 1954 to research animal diseases and has historically conducted much of the research that would be conducted at the new facility in Kansas as concerns agriculture, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which took over ownership and operation of the center in 2003. It was previously owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A new state-of-the-art, BSL-4 facility was needed to fill an “infrastructure gap” to combat bio- and agro-terrorism in the United States, the Homeland Security Department says.

“Biosafety level” refers to the level of the biocontainment precautions required to isolate dangerous biological agents in an enclosed laboratory facility. More stringent biocontainment precautions are needed to work with agents known or believed to be more dangerous to the external environment.

The island was once the site of Fort Terry, which served as an anti-submarine base during World War II. The base was deactivated after the war.

The island is situated where the Peconic Bay meets the Long Island Sound. Both have been designated by the federal government as estuaries of national significance under the National Estuary program. The federal government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the last two decades on conservation efforts to benefit the health of both estuaries, Zeldin’s bill notes.

The island itself is about 90 percent undeveloped and holds significant ecological and scenic sites, according to the Coalition to Preserve Plum Island. It is home to — or a vital stopover for — more than 200 species of birds, some of them listed as threatened or endangered, as well as Long Island’s largest seal colony.

Every town supervisor and village mayor on the East End, the County Legislature, both U.S. senators from New York and the Long Island delegation in the House of Representatives support repeal of the 2008 law mandating the sale of the island to the highest bidder.

A coalition of environmental groups last July filed a federal lawsuit to block the sale of Plum Island.

The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Group for the East End and Peconic Baykeeper charge the two federal agencies with violating the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal statutes in recommending the unconditional sale of Plum Island. They seek a judgment ruling that the federal General Services Administration and Department Of Homeland Security violated federal laws by “prejudging the final decision,” failing to conduct a coastal consistency determination and failing to base their final decision on adequate environmental analysis. They also seek an injunction to prevent the completion of the final environmental impact statement and sale of Plum Island until “an adequate environmental impact process has been completed and an appropriate coastal consistency determination has been made.

The case is pending in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York before Judge Denis Hurley, who is currently considering a motion to dismiss filed in March by the federal government.