08/30/13 1:00pm
08/30/2013 1:00 PM

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | The federal government is pushing forward with plans to move the research facility on Plum Island to Kansas State University.

The federal government is pushing forward with plans to auction Plum Island to the highest bidder, despite repeated concerns raised by lawmakers and environmental groups that there is not enough information to support the sale.

The General Services Administration and Department of Homeland Security issued its “record of decision” last Thursday night. The recommendation is one of the last steps before the property is put to auction.

The agencies hope to close the research laboratory at Plum Island and use the profits from the island’s sale to cover the cost of constructing a new, $1.1 billion animal disease research laboratory in Manhattan, Kan. A facility at Kansas State University is necessary in order to study zoonotic diseases — illnesses that can be transferred from animals to people, said Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico.

The existing Plum Island lab does not have the capacity to study those types of diseases, Mr. Verrico said.

Additionally, Homeland Security wants to locate the research facility closer to veterinary schools and livestock, so samples can be received and processed faster, he said.

Meanwhile, elected leaders have taken issue with the the sale and taken steps to prevent development at the land.

Last month, Congressman Tim Bishop (D- Southampton) introduced “Save, don’t sell Plum Island,” a bill designed to overturn the 2008 congressional mandate for the federal government to sell the island.

Meanwhile, Southold Town approved new zoning laws Tuesday that would prevent any significant development of the island.

The record of decision comes two months after the General Services Administration released is final environmental study that suggested up to 500 homes could be built on the island.

The study had environmental groups up in arms, pointing to several holes in the document, including citing the discovery of mammoth bones on the island that were later found to be discovered on Plum Island, Mass., not New York.

The General Services Administration and Homeland Security issued a joint statement saying the agencies issued the record of decision after considering “all the factors discovered and analyzed” during the National Environmental Policy Act process.

Mr. Verrico said there is no estimate of what the 840-acre island could fetch at auction, but said the sale was at least five years away.

cmurray@timesreview.com

08/22/13 12:00pm
08/22/2013 12:00 PM

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY COURTESY PHOTO | A mammoth skull on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The Southold Historical Society is disputing the federal government’s claim that woolly mammoth bones were once discovered on Plum Island.

The finding was mentioned in one sentence of the 500-page Final Environmental Impact Statement for the island, released this past October by the General Services Administration.

When questioned by a reporter about the discovery, a GSA spokesperson cited an 1879 article published in The Long Islander newspaper of Huntington as the basis for the claim. The article announced the discovery of a woolly mammoth skull on the island, indicating that it could contain other prehistoric remains dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian era.

But Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming said several references in the article lead his organization to believe the discovery was made on Plum Island, Mass.

“As soon as we read the [Long Islander] article we realized it wasn’t from here,” he said. “It was very clear from the locations being discussed, like the life saving station, which never existed on Plum Island [New York].”

Mr. Fleming also said a reference to “Brothers Beach” and a captain named in the article further indicate that the article was about the island in Massachusetts, though the piece does not specifically mention the state in which the discovery was made.

The historical society is currently researching Plum Island for a book it plans to release later this year.

Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island have said the FEIS is lacking critical information required to assess various potential impacts associated with the property’s anticipated sale, and they’ve called for additional studies.

“Regardless of whether there are woolly mammoth bones on Plum Island you would expect the federal government would want to know what is out there in terms of archeology and biology,” Randy Parsons, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, told the Suffolk Times earlier this month. “It points to a weakness in the way the island is run by the federal government.”

New York senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer and Congressman Tim Bishop have also joined in pointing out flaws in the environmental study.

The three elected officials outlined eight areas in need of additional study in a letter sent to the GSA last Friday. Soil and groundwater contamination, an inventory of solid waste sites and an assessment of the island’s existing sewage treatment structure were all examples listed in the letter.

“In order to best plan for its future and to prevent a rush to mistakenly move it to an unwise and unwarranted sale, we need a top-to-bottom environmental review of Plum Island, especially in light of the scientific research conducted at Plum Island,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement.

Despite the “outstanding issues” detailed in the letter, the GSA plans to move forward with the sale without any additional testing, according to GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani, who added that a note may still be added to correct the location of the mammoth bone discovery.

“The federal government is required by law to sell Plum Island,” reads a prepared statement from the GSA. “An Environmental Impact Statement prepared over a two-year time frame takes into account hundreds of comments from the public and analyzes the potential impacts of the sale of Plum Island on human health and the environment.GSA and DHS will continue to work closely with EPA, congressional and local officials to ensure all environmental concerns are reviewed and considered.” Once the property is sold, state and local regulatory agencies will have the authority to conduct additional reviews of the island, according to the statement.

The 840-acre island is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Should the lab close, the GSA hopes to sell the property to a private developer for possible construction of up to 500 homes, according to the FEIS.

Since the island is federally owned, it is not currently subject to local zoning regulations. If it were sold, Southold Town would have jurisdiction over the property, which has prompted local officials to create new zoning categories for the island. The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing commercial development if the island is sold. It proposes two separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center and considerable open space.

The Southold Town Board is expected vote on the proposed zoning during its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 27.

cmurray@timesreview.com 

08/08/13 12:00pm
08/08/2013 12:00 PM
According to a July 11, 1879 newspaper report, the mammoth bones were discovered near Plum Island's western end (top).

FILE PHOTO | According to a July 11, 1879 newspaper report, the mammoth skull and bones were discovered near Plum Island’s western end (top).

The contents of a tiny brief published in a weekly newspaper more than 130 years ago has archaeologists and environmentalists calling for a closer look beneath the surface of Plum Island.

The article, published in a July 1879 issue of The Long Islander newspaper of Huntington, announced the discovery of a woolly mammoth skeleton on the island, indicating that it could contain other prehistoric remains dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian era.

The 19th-century discovery came to the attention of local environmentalists only recently, when they noticed one particular sentence in a 500-page draft environmental impact study of the island, released by the federal General Services Administration this past October.

That sentence reads: “The discovery of a mammoth skeleton on the west side of Plum Island suggests that the island could contain prehistoric remains.”

“This may be one of the most remarkable statements about the possible presence of archeological remains that I have personally encountered over the last 20 years of reviewing development proposals,” said Bob DeLuca, president and CEO of Group for the East End.

The mammoth skeleton, which archaeologists say would have to be more than 10,000 years old, was found in July 1879 beneath a 50-foot sand dune that extended 150 feet along an area known as Brother’s Beach, near the existing light station on the west end of the island, according to GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani.

The bones were revealed by wind and erosion and unearthed by a group of men who spotted them, according to the Long Islander article.

The amateur excavation produced a mammoth skull and over seven feet of backbone. At least one leg of the skeleton was also present, the article reported.

The skull was described in the article as “like that of an elephant,” which means it was likely the skull of a mammoth, Mr. Sclafani said.

The bones were moved to the light station, but the article noted that they were in very poor condition.

“From the condition of the bones, they must have been covered for ages, as they were ready to crumble and it was with difficulty that they could be handled so as to take them to the station without falling to pieces,” the article stated.

The GSA has no record of what became of the skeleton, Mr. Sclafani said.

If mammoth bones were, in fact, found on Plum Island, it would be historic, said Dr. Gaynell Stone, director of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, adding that she had no prior knowledge of the discovery of any mammoth bones on the North Fork east of Riverhead.

According to the New York State Museum in Albany, the most recent discovery of a woolly mammoth in the state occurred in 1934, when the Randolph mammoth, said to be about 12,000 years old, was found during the expansion of a fish hatchery western New York. To date, these remains, now in the museum’s collection, represent the most complete woolly mammoth skeleton found in the state.

An archeology book published by the museum lists all mammoth discoveries made statewide prior to 1902. The only listing for Suffolk County was “more than one half of a lower jaw with teeth,” discovered between tides in Riverhead in 1823.

Other area archeologists said the DEIS was the first time they’d heard of the Plum Island discovery.

“I asked around a bit and no one else seems to be aware of its existence or history,” said archeology professor David Bernstein of Stony Brook University.

Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island said this revelation is another reason the impact statement is lacking in critical information required to assess the impact of selling Plum Island.

The 840-acre island is home to the Plum Island lab, which is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Should the lab close, the GSA hopes to sell the property to a private developer for possible construction of up to 500 homes.

Since the island is federally owned, it is not currently subject to local zoning regulations. If it were sold, the island would fall under Southold Town jurisdiction, which has prompted local officials to create new zoning categories for the island. The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing the construction of condominiums, large houses or even a casino if the island is sold. It proposes three separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center with its own harbor and considerable open space.

However, the zoning may not help protect the prehistoric significance of the island.

In the Final Environmental Impact Study the government has marked several areas Prehistoric High Probability Zones, which might suggest that human remains of hunters that tracked the mammoths could also be buried on the island.

The Archaeological Resources Predictive Model provided in the FEIS indicates that prehistoric remains would most likely be found be at the west edge of Plum Island, adjacent to both Long Island Sound and Plum Gut — the only area where Southold Town’s proposed zoning would allow development, Mr. DeLuca said.

To address these concerns, Group for the East End believes supplemental fieldwork should be done to more thoroughly examine the extent of Plum Island’s archeological potential. The group would like to see the federal government complete a Stage II Archaeological Assessment, which would involve excavating areas near where the mammoth bones were found in1879, Mr. DeLuca said.

“Should the property be transferred to private ownership, the extent of the island’s prehistoric [significance] should be at least as well understood as its other natural, historic and cultural resources,” he said.

The Group for the East End’s comments come on the heels of a statement issued by the environmental organization Save the Sound accusing the federal government of incorrectly recommending a full, unrestricted sale of Plum Island.

Save the Sound believes the FEIS is inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act in evaluating foreseeable impacts of development and fails to take into account the government interest in protecting habitats of rare species.

Randy Parsons, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, said he agrees with Save the Sound.

“Regardless of whether there are woolly mammoth bones on Plum Island you would expect the federal government would want to know what is out there in terms of archeology and biology,” he said. “It points to a weakness in the way the island is run by the federal government.”

cmurray@timesreview.com 

07/20/13 8:00am
07/20/2013 8:00 AM
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Congressman Tim Bishop announces his new bill to lift the congressional mandate to sell Plum Island.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Congressman Tim Bishop announces his new bill to lift the congressional mandate to sell Plum Island.

In a strong showing of bipartisanship and environmental activism, a coalition of pols and tree huggers gathered on a rocky beach overlooking Plum Island in sweltering heat Tuesday morning to support Congressman Tim Bishop’s “Save, Don’t Sell Plum Island Act of 2013.” It was an all-around love fest.

Later that same day, the Southampton Democrat filed his new bill in the House of Representatives in Washington. Which is where the love fest, no doubt, will come to a crashing end, given the economic and political forces that stand in the way.

In his favor, Mr. Bishop does boast co-sponsorship from colleagues from Connecticut and Staten Island, and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) plans to co-sponsor in the Senate. And, according to the congressman, New York’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have expressed support for the legislation, which could be key given Mr. Schumer’s new-found political clout following his recent inauguration and immigration coups.

But make no mistake, it will be a long, hard and possibly impossible road from sponsorship to passage. There’s a great deal of money at stake as the feds pursue the sale of Plum Island to help offset the $1.2 billion price tag for the proposed National Bio-and-Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kan. (The Bishop bill simply unhooks the sale of Plum Island from the development of NBAF.) Never mind that it makes no sense to relocate our nation’s animal disease research and prevention efforts from an isolated island off the East Coast to the middle of cattle country. Visions of dollar signs do dance in the heads of the bureaucrats from Homeland Security and General Services, who propose selling the 840-acre island at public auction so it can be developed, they speculate, with 500 luxury homes. Yes, I know, it’s a ridiculous idea, but that’s what could happen if something doesn’t give. And, hopefully, the first thing to give will be the Southold Town Board’s rezoning of the property to take residential development out of the equation. That, in itself, will make the sale of Plum Island much less attractive to any private investor who faces the tens of millions of dollars in environmental mitigation that’s likely to follow.

My personal first choice for the property, if the Plum Island lab’s mission eventually is moved to Kansas, would be to have it become a National Wildlife Refuge. But if that’s not in the cards, how’s this for an idea with an obvious local precedent?: Have the feds gift the island to Southold Town, just as the feds gifted the Grumman property in Calverton to the Town of Riverhead back in the mid-1990s. Yes, I know, the situations aren’t entirely analogous — largely because Grumman paid Riverhead $1.3 million a year in lieu of taxes and Plum Island doesn’t pay Southold a cent — but wouldn’t you rather have the fate of our neighbor to the immediate east in the hands of the town council instead of the mooks in Washington?

And Tim Bishop can start this ball rolling by renaming his new bill the “Gift, Don’t Sell Plum Island Act of 2013.”

tgustavson@timesreview.com

07/16/13 3:16pm
07/16/2013 3:16 PM

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Congressman Tim Bishop announces his new bill to lift the congressional mandate to sell Plum Island.

Congressman Tim Bishop (D- Southampton) Tuesday announced the introduction of “Save, don’t sell Plum Island,” a bill designed to overturn the 2008 congressional mandate for the federal government to sell the island, for decades the home of an animal disease research laboratory, at public auction.

The bipartisan legislation would help prevent non-research development on the 840-acre island, preserving what Mr. Bishop called a biodiversity “treasure.”

The federal General Services Administration recently released an environmental impact statement supporting construction of up to 500 dwellings on the island, which in addition to animal disease center is home to an abandoned military installation.

The congressman was joined at a morning press conference on the beach in Orient by state Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), Southold Supervisor Scott Russell and representatives of several environmental groups, including the Group for the East End, the Nature Conservancy and Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Connecticut Democratic Congressmen Joe Courtney and Rep. Michael Grimm, a Staten Island Republican, have signed on as cosponsors. Companion legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate by Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

Its purpose is to reverse the 2008 bill requiring the island’s sale to help finance a new $1.2 billion animal disease research center in Manhattan, Kan.

Mr. Bishop’s bill contends cleanup costs from past island activities, including the operation of Fort Terry, a WWI-era Army base, coupled with Southold’s pending island zoning prohibiting new development, would dramatically reduce the island’s commercial value.

Mr. Bishop said the Kansas research facility would “duplicate many of the research functions currently served well by other research facilities, including Plum Island,” and would be unaffordable given the nation’s budget constraints.

According to Mr. Bishop’s bill, the Plum Island facility has been well maintained.

He added that more than $23 million in federal funds have been invested in laboratory upgrades since January 2012, with additional significant expenditures likely in the future.

“If the federal government did not already own Plum Island, it would be seeking to purchase it for conservation,” Mr. Bishop said.

cmiller@timesreview.com

04/29/13 6:30pm
04/29/2013 6:30 PM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | From left: John Turner from Huntington/Oyster Bay Audubon, Randy Parsons from The Nature Conservancy, Congressman Tim Bishop, Charles Rothenberger from Save the Sound.

Environmental groups from both sides of the Long Island Sound  hosted a public meeting in Orient Monday on protecting Plum Island’s undeveloped areas.

Group for the East End and the Save the Sound organization from Connecticut were  joined by Congressman Tim Bishop and dozens of concerned community members at Poquatuck Hall to address the future of the island.

Reporter Cyndi Murray blogged from the meeting. For a recap click on the link below.

04/29/13 8:00am

Environmental groups from both sides of Long Island Sound will host a public meeting on protecting Plum Island’s undeveloped areas in Orient tonight.

The Group for the East End and the Save the Sound organization from Connecticut will be joined by Congressman Tim Bishop at Poquatuck Hall on Skippers Lane for the session from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The fate of the 840-acre island off the North Fork’s eastern tip has been in question for several years as federal authorities consider the construction of a replacement animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. That project, which Congress has yet to fully fund, calls for closing the Plum Island lab and selling the property.

The public forum comes just one week before Southold Town will hold a public hearing on the proposal would divide Plum Island into three zoning districts.

cmurray@timesreview.com

03/20/13 10:00am
03/20/2013 10:00 AM
TIM KELLY PHOTO | Research work could continue on Plum Island's westernmost section under new zoning proposed by Southold's Planning Department.

TIM KELLY PHOTO | An aerial view of Plum Island.

Southold Town’s long-awaited plan to zone Plum Island could be ready for public comment in April. The town’s code committee had its last look at the proposed zoning March 14.

The island has never been under any zoning category because it has been in federal hands and is therefore not subject to local planning regulations. The proposed zoning would go into effect only if the federal government sells the 840-acre island, home to a national laboratory studying animal diseases.

The town’s action was prompted by the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to replace the Plum Island lab with a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan.

Homeland Security took title to the 46-acre Kansas site in January and, in February, DHS and the State of Kansas awarded an $80 million contract to build a utility plant there. But Congress has yet to authorize any additional funding.

It remains to be seen whether President Obama will include the Kansas construction in his 2014 federal budget, which was due in early February but will not be released until early April.

The pending town plan would divide Plum Island into three zoning districts. The Plum Island Research District would encompass the existing lab and surrounding 175 acres, while the Plum Island Conservation District would encompass 600 undeveloped acres. The third zone, Marine II, would allow for improved access to the island at its existing ferry facilities. Improvements to ferry services would be granted by special exception permit from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

Early drafts of the zoning proposal allowed renewable energy generation on the island — which could have included wind and tidal power. But because environmental groups raised concerns about the effect of other generation sources on birds and marine life, the latest draft allows only soloar energy generation. A solar energy permit would also require a special exception permit from the ZBA.

Members of the code committee said at their March 14 meeting that they hoped to revisit other renewable energy production on the island after the initial zoning is adopted.

The town’s planning department is currently completing a study to back up any zoning changes, said planning director Heather Lanza.

Ms. Lanza said an April public hearing could be set by the Town Board as soon as their March 26 meeting.

byoung@timesreview.com