High Hopes For Imminent Plum Island Preservation

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that there would be no cost to transfer the island to another agency to crate a National Monument. This is not true, and this story has been updated accordingly.

Original story follows:

As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security works on its $150 million project to close down the Plum Island Animal Disease Center by 2028 in preparation to move the research done there to a new facility in Manhattan, Kansas, there’s new hope this month that the future of the island will soon be decided.

Save the Sound’s New York Natural Areas Coordinator, Louise Harrison, told attendees at New York State Senator Anthony Palumbo’s Feb. 10 environmental roundtable that the federal General Services Administration had received a draft “report of excess” of the island from the Department of Homeland Security two weeks prior, and environmentalists believe the formal document could be distributed to other federal agencies as soon as March, after which those agencies will have 30 days to express interest in taking care of the island. After that time period, if no federal agency expresses interest, the island could be offered to New York State.

“They don’t have to say “‘we’ll take it,’” she said of agencies’ expression of interest, but if they don’t express interest, “it trickles down in a rapid way. We don’t want to see no one expressing interest.”

In the meantime, members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition of environmental groups spearheaded by Save the Sound, has made contact with a woman who wants to act as mega-donor, using her existing foundation to create “a fund for a public-private partnership for the future management of Plum Island, said Ms. Harrison, and the Coalition has also met with White House Counsel on the Environment last December, and since then with representatives from the Department of the Interior in an attempt to make the 840-acre island a National Monument.

A new 501(c)3 non-profit organization called Friends of Plum Island is being created to further that effort, she said.

A National Monument would be significant, she said, because it could be approved by the Executive Branch of the federal government without having to go through Congress.

“There are longer routes, such as through the Fish & Wildlife Service,”  but that would take quite a bit of legislative help,” she said.

“Our donor is 94 years old and would like to see this settled pretty soon,” she added. “We’d all like to see this settled soon.”

Ms. Harrison requested the State Legislature pass a resolution in support of preserving the island.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele said the state legislature doesn’t usually take up such resolutions, but he could circle a letter of support among his colleagues and to the Governor’s office.

“I think we can really move ahead, I know the congressman is supportive,” said Ms. Harrison. “We have high hopes for the future of Plum Island.”

The Preserve Plum Island Coalition released a report in 2020 detailing environmental groups’ vision for the future of the island, which includes a 640-acre preserve, 125-acre academic research complex and a small museum and visitor’s center at the Plum Island Ferry Dock in Orient that highlights the island’s Native American, cultural, scientific, military, and natural heritage. A ferry would take both researchers and visitors to the island from the existing ferry dock.

Ms. Harrison and Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca made the a similar request for support from the Southold Town Board at its Feb. 15 work session.

“If you could endorse the idea of a National Monument with the governor — our president is going to want to know that our governor supports that. No president is going to propose a National Monument without knowing the governor is in favor of it,” Ms. Harrison told the Southold Town Board. “We’re asking all officials to reach out in their ways and let President Biden know this is what the region wants.”

The Department of Homeland Security also announced in late January a Notice Of Intent to Create an Environmental Assessment for the Closure Activities of Plum Island, and is seeking public comment on that process through March 11. Here’s more info.

“It does not amount to a lot of acreage, but due diligence is required,” Ms. Harrison told the Southold Town Board. “The DEC is making sure New York State standards are met, which are more stringent than federal standards.”

She added that many of the buildings on the island are large animal holding areas, which, because they have negative pressure ventilation safety systems to prevent the spread of animal diseases studied there are not easily reused.

But asking the Department of Homeland Security to remove those buildings is “a delicate balance,” said Ms. Harrison. “We may have continuing concerns, but we don’t want to bog down the process of transfer to an agency that can show the island some hope and some love.”

Town Board members agreed to ask members of the town planning staff to draft a letter of support for the National Monument to New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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