Plum Island
Plum Island

The federal government’s long awaited final environmental report on the potential sale of Plum Island doesn’t look much different from the draft report released last summer, and that lack of change has environmentalists hot and bothered.

The 840-acre island, which is currently owned by the Department of Homeland Security, is home to the Department of Agriculture’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which studies hoof and mouth disease and other noxious animal ailments. The federal government is planning to build a newer, safer lab in Kansas.

A consortium of environmental agencies had some reason to celebrate last year, when they successfully pushed to have a conservation alternative added to the potential reuse options for the island. Plum Island is an important stop for migratory birds on the Atlantic Flyway and the home to numerous rare species. The final environmental impact statement (FEIS), released Tuesday, doesn’t expand on the possibility of conserving the island, though it is still listed as an option, along with the adaptive reuse of buildings on site and three different levels of housing development there.

“Unfortunately, the Final EIS ignored the overwhelming weight of public testimony that sought to create a viable preservation strategy for the future of Plum Island,” said Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End. “As a result, we now stand to lose one of the largest and most significant, natural and historical resources located anywhere in coastal New York or along the Connecticut shoreline.”

“The Nature Conservancy continues to support the position of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition and the Town of Southold, New York, that at least 80 percent of Plum Island needs to be protected,” agreed Randy Parsons, conservation finance and policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy Long Island Chapter. “As a first choice, we would like to see 80 percent of the island transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a new Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge. For the GSA to continue to spend time and public money on studies of low and high density residential uses of the island, for a sale that cannot occur for at least nine years, hardly seems like a good use of limited federal resources.”

Meanwhile, Southold Town is planning to zone the island so that it can’t be anything but a research campus, marine district and wildlife reserve if it is sold out of federal hands.

But perhaps the biggest gray area in the feds’ new report is the lack of detail about potential contamination on the island, which has undergone a massive clean-up since 1999 that has received little public scrutiny.

The 512-page FEIS only briefly mentions environmental contamination, stating that 24 of the original 49 Superfund sites on the island are currently under a “voluntary program of site investigation and remediation with NYS DEC oversight,” while the other 25 have been determined by the DEC to not require further action.

In comparison, there are just 20 other Superfund-listed sites in all of the rest of Suffolk County.

The sites on Plum Island include 21 waste management areas, 15 “areas of potential concern,” ten historical Army batteries and three Army support structures, according to the FEIS. Work plans for cleaning up those areas began in 1999, but none of the sites were ever placed on the National Priorities List, which would have hastened their cleanup.

The report says no pesticides were found during water testing and the volatile organic compounds in the water were deemed to not exceed federal drinking water standards. Several test wells are still being monitored by the DEC.

Medical waste was excavated from eight sites and taken off the island between 2000 and 2007, according to the report, which does not say whether residue from medical waste made its way into the island’s groundwater.

The Associated Press reported in 2010 that 970 tons of medical waste were taken from 10 sites on the island to landfills in Pennsylvania.

There are also 87 sites on the island that had at one time been used to store hazardous waste, including 72 buildings, five incinerators and ten former military batteries. Only eighteen of those sites were determined by the federal government to need remediation, and have since been cleaned up under the oversight of the DEC.

“The DHS is currently completing remaining CERCLA [the Superfund Law] program closure and clean-up operations incompliance with applicable federal, state, and local regulatory standards,” says the report. “Under the Action Alternative [if the island is sold], the federal government has an obligation under CERCLA to protect human health and the environmental (sic) by certifying the environmental condition of the property prior to transfer of title.”

The potential cost of ensuring the island is cleaned up is not detailed in the report.

None of the Superfund sites on Plum Island are in CERCLA’s searchable database, despite the fact that other federal sites, including those at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a portion of the former Grumman plant in Calverton that was contaminated while it was owned by the U.S. Navy, are listed in the database along with extensive details about their cleanup.

The Suffolk County Planning Commission, which earlier this month examined Southold Town’s draft zoning plan for the island, sent a letter to the U.S. General Services Administration, which is preparing the island for sale, the first week in June asking the agency to disclose the extent of environmental contamination on the island.

Regardless of what happens on Plum Island, plans to build a replacement lab in Manhattan, Kan. are moving full speed ahead. The U.S. House of Representatives voted in early June to allocate $404 million for the new lab, after voting down East End Congressman Tim Bishop’s amendment to remove the funding from a defense appropriations bill in a 345-80 vote.

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

4 thoughts on “Pushing for environmental details in Fed plan for Plum Island

  1. The fact that much has changed in the report sounds like they already are expecting things to turn out a certain way, (development) like things are in place already.

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