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Originally published Friday, October 15, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Environmentalists fret about Plum Island's future

One estimate projected Plum Island, off Long Island, N.Y., could fetch as much as $50 million.

The Associated Press

PLUM ISLAND, N.Y. — Researchers since the 1950s have studied dangerous animal diseases here that if unleashed could imperil the nation's livestock. Cold War germ-warfare testing also occurred on Plum Island, and for decades the Army used it as a coastal-defense post.

Nevertheless, many environmentalists characterize Plum Island as a "remarkable gem" and "exemplary site for fish and wildlife" when describing its attributes.

The federal government wants to relocate the animal-disease lab to Kansas and is proceeding with plans to sell the isolated, 840-acre pork chop-shaped island off the eastern tip of Long Island, a move that has some environmentalists fretting about Plum Island's future.

Recently, more than two dozen environmentalists and civic leaders were taking part in a daylong tour of Plum Island. It's sort of a real-estate "open house," in which they will get a rare public glimpse of operations at the lab, as well as visit remote parts that are home to endangered bird species and other wildlife.

"We'd like to see a continuation of the research and development in some form, coupled with a more formalized protection of the rest of the island as a national wildlife refuge," Randy Parsons, policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy, said.

Although Agriculture Department scientists perform the lab studies, the island has been overseen by the Department of Homeland Security since 2003.

About a dozen community groups have been granted access under tight security restrictions in the past year, DHS spokeswoman Kristine Garland said.

Despite its mystique as the subject of a 1997 Nelson DeMille best-selling book of the same name, and its mention as a possible home for Hannibal Lecter in the film "Silence of the Lambs," Plum Island could be an ideal place for day trips because of its pristine beaches, some environmentalists say. They'd rather see that than homes or condos developed there.

"It would be a terrible insult to the millions of people who live within an hour's drive of the (Long Island) Sound for this to be developed as a playground for the few, as opposed to making it a managed and loved place for the many," said Curt Johnson, program director of a group called Save the Sound.

The General Services Administration, which has responsibility for selling the island, is compiling a draft environmental-impact statement, a preliminary step necessary to proceed with any sale. The statement, expected last month, has been delayed until late November or early December, GSA spokeswoman Paula Santangelo said. Documents, some obtained earlier this year by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Law, reveal that hundreds of tons of medical waste, contaminated soil and other refuse already have been shipped off the island.

And the Army Corps of Engineers determined in 2006 that no munitions or ordnance remain from the Army base that once housed as many as 4,000 troops from the Spanish-American War through World War II.

"The opportunity to visit an island where very few have visited in 50 years is remarkable," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.


Also under way is a congressional risk assessment of Homeland Security's decision to move the animal disease lab to Manhattan, Kan.; some lawmakers question the wisdom of studying dangerous pathogens in the so-called Beef Belt.

Still, the recent tour appears to be another incremental step toward an eventual sale.

Alan Schnurman, a real-estate developer in the Hamptons on Long Island's east end, said he has heard estimates that Plum Island could fetch as much as $50 million.

"As a high-end real-estate project, whether it's developed as a resort or for high-end individual homes, Plum Island is very appealing to a certain segment of the population," Schnurman said. "I'm an environmentalist at heart, so I'd probably like to see a combination of both. They should develop the area where the lab is located and set aside the rest for environmental purposes."

In addition to the laboratory, Plum Island features a water-filtration plant, sewage-treatment facilities and other amenities that would be attractive to any developer.

"We just think that given the importance of Long Island Sound generally and the fact that there is an ever-shrinking pool of natural open space on the coastline, any sale should really be sensitive to the environmental values," said Charles Rothenberger, a staff attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. "If there is going to be any development, it should be limited to the current infrastructure and conservation arrangements should be made to protect the majority of the island."

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