House temporarily halts sale of Plum Island

New York and Connecticut lawmakers who have been campaigning against the sale of Plum Island by the federal government, have won an impressive victory as the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously on Monday to halt efforts to sell the property, at least temporarily.

Plum Island, located of the north-eastern tip of Long Island, has for decades housed a high-security biolab in which research into deadly animal diseases pathogens.

The aging lab is closing, and its operations will be moved to a modern high-security lab being built in the campus of Kansas State University.

The General Services Administration (GSA) has been trying to sell the island to developers, a move opposed by environmental groups.

“Plum Island is a scenic and biological treasure located right in the middle of Long Island Sound. The island is home to a rich assortment of endangered species, and should be preserved as a natural sanctuary — not sold off to the highest bidder for development,” Connecticut lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The CT Mirror reports that the House, by voice vote, approved the legislationsponsored by Rep. Lee Zeldin, (R-New York) and co-sponsored by all five Connecticut House members. The bill requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to evaluate to different options for the future of Plum Island.

One of the options is turning the island into a wildlife refuge or national park.

The bill instructs the GSA to stop its efforts to sell the island until six months after the GAO has submitted the report, in which it evaluates the different options for the island, to Congress.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) have introduced a bill in the Senate to block the sale of the island.

“The level of environmental uncertainty in allowing GSA to auction off Plum Island is unacceptable,” Blumenthal said when he introduced the bill. “Congress must repeal their short-sighted decision to sell Plum Island and provide GSA with the flexibility it needs to transfer the facility to another federal agency or other entity that has an impeccable environmental record.”

Blumenthal and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) last year joined with other lawmakers who oppose the sale of the island, include a requirement in the DHS appropriations bill for the department to conduct a separate study on different dispositions of the island once the biolab closes.

DHS has not yet completed the study.

“Since World War II it has been allowed to return to its natural state and 80 percent of the island has become a refuge for some of our region’s most imperiled species, plants, animals and marine life,” said Chris Cryder, of Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

The operations at the Kansas facility are not expected to begin until 2023, and Plum Island cannot be sold – or turned into a nature preserve – until then.

The GSA, however, has been actively seeking a buyer for the property for month.

“The island boasts sandy shoreline, beautiful views and a harbor strategically situated to provide easy access from the Orient Point facility or elsewhere,” the GSA says on its Web site. “Architectural highlights include a lighthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places built in 1869, along with buildings and battery stations constructed as part of Fort Terry, a military fort actively used during the buildup to the Spanish-American War and during World War I and World War II.”

The Mirror notes that most of the other buildings and infrastructure on the island are more recent, including a 55,000 square-foot, glass and concrete administration building constructed in 1994.

The GSA says on its Web site that the sale would include about 840 acres of the island and 9.5 acres in Orient Point, New York, one of two ferry sites which workers and members of the public given permission to visit the island take. The GSA notes that there is also ferry access to the site from Old Saybrook.

Long Island politicians and leaders welcomed the House vote.

“Plum Island is truly a natural, cultural and historical treasure that has been cherished by our local community since before the 1700s, which is why protecting this critical land is so important,” Zeldin said in during the news conference.

“Plum Island is a jewel and a national treasure,” Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said in a prepared statement following the news conference. “The federal government’s plan to see it off to the highest bidder is ill-conceived and shortsighted.”

“This day means a lot,” said John Turner, a spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “Any naturalist will call it ‘Treasure Island.’ Plum Island is such an important part of Long Island’s culture and history. There are 220 species of birds there and hundreds of seals. It’s a habitat for endangered species.”

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