The second hearing in as many days on the proposed sale of Plum Island, which is home to the country’s only laboratory that studies infectious animal diseases, again drew criticism from environmentalists and local elected officials on Thursday.
The federal government plans to sell the 840-acre island and move research operations to a $1.14 billion laboratory in Kansas.
The General Services Administration, which is charged with overseeing the sale of the island, released a draft environmental impact statement in July that discusses options for its future use. The options include developing residential housing on the property off the eastern tip of Long Island, turning the island into a nature preserve, or allowing for some entity to take over the laboratory property for some alternative research purpose.
GSA officials noted at Thursday night’s hearing, which drew a crowd of about 60 people, that the final determination on what happens to the property would be made by an as-yet unknown buyer; it would be sold to the highest bidder. That owner would then have to conform to local zoning regulations which have yet to be formulated. Scott Russell, the supervisor of the town of Southold, which would determine zoning regulations, said it was unlikely any zoning regulations would be approved that would allow for residential development.
Several of those speaking at the hearing at Greenport High School, just several miles west of Plum Island, echoed the sentiments of those at a hearing the night before in Connecticut.
“The best option is to leave it alone,” said Mike Griffin of East Marion. “It doesn’t make sense to move to Kansas.”
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose Long Island district includes Plum Island, read a letter on behalf of the congressman. As he has in the past, Bishop said he opposes moving research operations from New York to Kansas. He cited the growing cost of the new facility, which initially was estimated to cost $451 million and has now gone over $1 billion; much of that funding has yet to actually be allocated, Bishop said.
Bishop also cited studies that question the wisdom of placing a laboratory that studies foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle, in the heart of the nation’s so-called Beef Belt. His letter said a 2010 National Academy of Sciences review found a 70 percent probability that there could be an accidental release of the disease over a 50-year period, and said the economic impact of such a release could run into the tens of billions.
Ted Scherf, who represented Audubon New York at Thursday’s hearing, said the draft environmental impact statement failed to complete a year-round assessment of the impact on several migratory birds that are found on Plum Island.
A GSA spokesman said the public would have until Oct. 26 to submit additional comments on the draft impact statement. Although the GSA is charged with overseeing the sale, the research facility is run by the Department of Homeland Security.
On Wednesday, officials and others in Connecticut also questioned whether the lab should be closed and the island sold.
“It makes no sense,” Connecticut state Sen. Andrea Stillman said at a hearing in Old Saybrook.
“The common sense solution to this is to leave it alone,” she said. “What we have on that island now is an extraordinary research facility and an extraordinary wildlife habitat that live together.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.