Local stakeholders have called for a closer look at Plum Island as the federal government seeks to pack up and relocate the labs to Manhattan, Kan.
The federal government put Plum Island up for sale in 2008, putting the land at risk of development. Plum Island was removed from auction in 2020, although the site is still for sale to government agencies. The Department of Homeland Security plans to complete the closure of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 2028 at a cost of $150 million.
In comments included in a recently released draft environmental assessment, concerns centered on broadening the analysis to include the entire island and potential impacts on federally threatened and endangered species. on the island. Concerns have also been expressed about preserving cultural resources and minimizing impact on the island ecosystem during decontamination efforts.
“The notice focuses narrowly on the main laboratory buildings, two of the Fort Terry buildings not included in the [Plum Island Animal Disease Center] Historic District and the Orient Point facility, which is vital to the ferry connection between Plum Island and mainland Long Island,” reads a letter signed by members of the Suffolk County Legislative Assembly. “We believe that the environmental assessment should take into account the impacts of the closure of the PIADC on the whole island and all its components.”
The Legislature adds that there is “strong interest in the future of Plum Island” among stakeholders in the southern New England region and expresses the hope that “the federal government will clarify its process and engage the communities in a broader dialogue about the future of the island that your advice implies.
“Many aspects of Plum Island and its structures need to be examined and discussed. The island is a unique treasure, the continued preservation of which we fully support for a number of reasons, including the benefits to the people, the economy, and the land and marine environments of the region,” the county legislature added.
The North Fork Audubon Society, North Fork Environmental Council, The Nature Conservancy and Save the Sound expressed similar sentiments in separate letters. Save the Sound also requested clarification on shutdown procedures, including plans for the safe transport of “viruses, vaccines and other materials” to the new Kansas facility.
Environmental groups and other stakeholders have previously advocated for the preservation of the 840-acre island as a national monument, citing its ecological, cultural and historical significance. A 2020 report from the Preserve Plum Island Coalition details a vision for a 640-acre reserve, 125-acre research complex, and small museum showcasing the island’s heritage and history. The Preserve Plum Island Coalition has secured a potential donor who is willing to fund the management of the island if the acreage is conserved. Lawmakers in Connecticut and New York have indicated support for the coalition.
Proposed action outlined in the recently released draft environmental assessment includes decontamination plans for biocontainment facilities. No construction or demolition of facilities would take place. The assessment notes that DHS has worked closely with the state and Suffolk County over the past three decades “to successfully investigate and remediate many sites of concern.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has determined that 10 sites of concern on Plum Island require further action. Some physical assets, such as standby generators and boilers, would be stored long term.
Approximately 100 support staff currently employed at Plum Island and the Orient Point facility would continue to support closure activities until the move is complete. DHS plans to employ approximately 200 additional contractors to assist with the shutdown, after which no DHS personnel would work at the facility. The conclusion of the analysis notes that no significant negative impact on the environment is expected from the proposed action.
The most recent biodiversity survey, conducted by the New York Natural Heritage Program in 2015, identified over 200 species of birds, over 200 species of moths, nine mammals and five reptiles on Plum Island, as well as occasional white-tailed deer, raccoons and box turtles. Save the Sound sponsored further underwater investigation of the island, including a dive last August. The island is also the largest resting place, or stranding area, for seals in New York. Eighty-five percent of the site is underdeveloped.
Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fort Terry was established on the island in 1897 as part of the coastal fortifications related to the Spanish–American War, and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to establish national monuments on sites featuring “historic monuments, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historical or scientific interest,” according to the National Park Service website. .
Southold Town adopted local zoning for the federally owned Plum Island in 2013, with one area allocated for research and the other defined as a conservation district which prohibits development on 600 acres. The Plum Island ferry dock has also been zoned. Under the town of Southold code, Marine III licenses the ferry terminals for ferry service to and from Plum Island only, with certain incidental uses. The Suffolk Times previously reported that the rezoning was part of efforts to preserve the island.