Environmentalists, including Bob DeLuca of Group for the East End (center) at the announcement of the lawsuit at Orient Point in July 2016.
Environmentalists, including Bob DeLuca of Group for the East End (center) at the announcement of the lawsuit at Orient Point in July 2016.

A federal district court judge ruled on Jan. 11 that a lawsuit brought by environmentalists over the federal government’s handling of the potential sale of Plum Island could go forward.

Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound and six other organizations and individuals filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security and General Services Administration in July 2016, arguing that, by failing to adequately consider the environmental impact of the sale, the agencies violated provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, Coastal Zone Management Act and other federal laws in their pursuit of auctioning the federally-owned island to the highest bidder.

Arguing the plaintiffs don’t have standing in the case, Homeland Security and GSA served a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in February 2017.

Judge Denis Hurley of the Eastern District of New York found that the plaintiffs have standing and rejected each of the agencies’ arguments.

“This is a very well-written decision that denies the government’s motion to dismiss in its entirety,” said Roger Reynolds, chief legal officer for CFE/Save the Sound. “We’ll now have the opportunity to present our full case to the court and ask that the sale of the island be halted until the agencies complete a proper environmental review in accordance with federal law.”

Save the Sound’s New York Natural Areas Coordinator, Louise Harrison, echoed that sentiment in comments to the Southold Town Board Jan. 16.

“The denial of that motion was lengthy and detailed, over 30 pages,” she said. “It was written by a judge who seemed to go over the details quite closely. We’re pleased that was recognized, and it sets the stage for the lawsuit to proceed. We’re eager to know it’s going to be heard on the merits at this point. We’re very hopeful.”

For more than half a decade, Plum Island has been the subject of a massive conservation effort by the Preserve Plum Island Coalition—now numbering over 90 Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island organizations, who hope to have the majority of the island preserved as wildlife habitat, while keeping the area of the animal disease research laboratory on the island open for research purposes.

The federal government plans to shut the Plum Island lab once a new lab under construction in Kansas is complete.

Judge Hurley’s decision also quoted from an Environmental Protection Agency letter stating that the federal agencies’ Final Environmental Impact Statement failed to consider a local ordinance to create a conservation area to limit development and preserve “much of the island,” and did not offer options that EPA had recommended to mitigate environmental damage.

The conservationists’ suit argues that FEIS violates provisions of multiple federal environmental laws, and seeks an injunction against selling the island until an adequate FEIS has been completed.

In its motion to dismiss, Homeland Security and the GSA argued that the claim was not ripe for review because the agency could do further studies, the plaintiffs were not injured and the court should not consider the claim because it could become moot.

Judge Hurley found in his decision that the case was properly ripe because the government had issued its FEIS and Record of Decision, the plaintiffs and organizations would be harmed by the incomplete environmental review because of their interests in the island’s environmental resources, and the court would hear the matter because there was no guarantee that the government would resolve the plaintiffs’ complaints without the court’s intervention.

“Judge Hurley’s decision is an early and important victory for everyone who believes Plum Island is a critical part of our nation’ natural heritage that should not be auctioned off like a piece of meat to the highest bidder,” said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End. “This ruling is also a victory for due process in supporting the rights of individual citizens and conservation organizations to challenge the actions of government bureaucrats when those actions fail to follow the specific requirements of environmental law.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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