U.S. House votes to temporarily halt Plum Island sale

An aerial view of Plum Island

File Photo

An aerial view of Plum Island

Washington – Connecticut lawmakers and environmental groups who want to stop a federal sale of Plum Island, won a key victory as the U.S. House of Representatives voted Monday to temporarily halt efforts to sell the property.

Similar legislation is proposed but has not yet moved through the Senate.

Plum Island – a strip of land where Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay meet – for decades has been the site of research into the world’s most deadly animal diseases, including swine flu and foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious livestock illness.

Off limits to the general public, conspiracy theorists link operations at the lab to the spread of Lyme disease, a claim that is so persistent the Department of Homeland Security continues to refute it on its website.

But operations at the lab are being moved to Kansas, where a new, larger lab with even tighter security will be built.

The General Services Administration has been tasked with selling the property – an effort that environmental groups have opposed, saying the island is important habitat for dozens of bird species and some aquatic animals.

“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 House easily approved, by voice vote, legislation late Monday, sponsored by Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y, and co-sponsored by all five Connecticut House members, that would require the Government Accountability Office to prepare a report on options for the disposition of Plum Island, including turning it into a wildlife refuge or national park.

The bill would also direct the GSA to stop its attempts to sell the island until 180 days after GAO has submitted its report to Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the report would cost less than $500,000.

“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 Audubon Society estimates 219 bird species either breed or stop on the island during migratory flights.

The Plum Island bill also would require the GAO to determine how much a potential buyer would have to spend on expenses related to the transition, cleanup and mitigation of hazards on Plum Island.

But it would not stop the sale of Plum Island outright, something the environmentalists and Connecticut lawmakers had sought. Cryder said Zeldin’s legislation was amended to remove an outright halt because of concerns that such a bill might not make it through Congress.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Charles Schumer, R-N.Y., have introduced a bill in the Senate that would block the sale.

“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 Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and other opponents of Plum Island’s sale included in an appropriations bill last year the requirement that the Department of Homeland Security conduct a separate study on an alternative to development that would center on conserving the natural resources of the island.

DHS is working on that report.

Trump among interested buyers

Among those who expressed interest in purchasing the island is Donald Trump, the real estate developer and presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

“It would be a really beautiful, world-class golf course,” he told Newsday in 2013.

Plum Island cannot be sold until operations at the Kansas facility are up and running. The expected date for that is 2023 at the earliest.

Yet the GSA has been marketing the island for months.

“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 in a sales pitch on its website. “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.”

Most of the other buildings and infrastructure on the island are of more modern design and development, including a 55,000 square-foot, glass and concrete administration building constructed in 1994. The island also has four miles of existing paved roadway and eight miles of gravel roads.

The sale would include about 840 acres of the island and 9.5 acres in Orient Point, N.Y., one of two ferry sites used by workers and anyone else given permission to visit the island take.  There is also ferry access to the site from Old Saybrook.

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