Rush to meet Plum Island comment deadline

Environmental groups in Connecticut and New York are scrambling to meet a Friday deadline to submit comments on a draft environmental impact statement for the sale of Plum Island by the federal government.

Their collective consensus — with some nuanced differences — is that most, if not all, of the island, located in the New York State portion of Long Island Sound, should be conserved.

“If Plum Island wasn’t already owned by federal government, they’d be finding a way to buy it,” said Randall Parsons, conservation finance and policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island.

Sandy Breslin, director of governmental affairs for Audubon Connecticut, agreed. “It’s a once in a generation opportunity to protect an unparalleled ecological gem in Long Island Sound,” she said.

Since 1954, a small portion of the 840-acre island has been home to an animal disease research facility run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Legislation passed by Congress in 2009 directed the General Services Administration to sell Plum Island because of a Bush administration decision the previous year to establish a larger and more up-to-date Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan.

That facility, with an estimated cost in excess of $1 billion, is all-but-stalled. Only a small amount of funding has been released for planning while the project, and especially its high price tag, is re-assessed. Opposition to it has grown in Kansas over safety concerns. Potential completions dates, assuming the project goes ahead, have been pushed off to as late as 2021.

All of which, say environmental groups concerned about Plum Island’s future, means the Plum Island facility will be operating for many more years so there’s plenty of time for the GSA to re-examine things, which they can do in supplements to the draft impact statement.

Environmental groups contend that the draft was inadequate and does not take into account a full assessment of the environmental attributes of the island, a rigorous study of potential impacts, or a thorough evaluation of hazards that remain from nearly six decades of research.

Attorney Charles Rothenberger, still finishing the submission for Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Save the Sound, is among many who point to the fact that the GSA did no four-season study of wildlife, relying instead on existing older data and that their plant study involved two people for two days, which he said works out to examining 50 acres an hour.

“Is this the kind of rigor we want to bring to this?” he asked. “You really can’t take 12 months to do a study that everyone told you is necessary?”

While groups would like to see preservation of the entire island, most said that retaining the existing development as some other function would be acceptable. But all say the draft impact statement did not thoroughly assess hazardous and toxic waste contamination known to exist in several locations, and wonder with that and the uncertainty of the Kansas facility how realistic a sale would be.

“Who’s going to buy that?” The Nature Conservancy’s Parsons asked. “Who’s going to sign up for that?”

There is also some discrepancy over whether the federal government can retain control of the island by transferring it to another department. Many would like to see it taken over by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as new national wildlife refuge.

The Fish & Wildlife Service in its own submission noted that federal lands being sold are first supposed to be offered to other agencies. It also noted, as did others, that Congress directed that the sale protect government interests and program requirements. Many interpret that to mean all programs including things like the Endangered Species Act.

Among other recurring concerns, in its submission, the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Long Island Sound Study pointed to GSA’s incomplete inventory of what they say is 187 bird species including some endangered and threatened ones, as well as more than a dozen rare plants, including some that are endangered. The Connecticut Congressional delegation has offered a letter calling for better delineation of what parts of the island would be protected.

The GSA said it had received more than 200 comments on the sale, including those from two recent packed public hearings, one in Connecticut and one in New York. Under the current timetable, a final impact statement is due this winter.