Suffolk Closeup: Fighting for the future of Plum Island

The 800-pound gorilla in the hearing room as local and state officials and environmentalists pushed last week for the preservation of Plum Island was the issue of toxic areas on the island.

This wasn’t missed by Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, formerly a Suffolk County legislator whose district included Plum Island, as well as Shelter Island. He testified at Brookhaven Town Hall September 28 that Plum Island should be preserved, not sold for development as the federal government has proposed. But he warned that toxic areas on Plum Island — from a federal government laboratory that studies animal diseases — must be completely cleaned up and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) “should be deeply involved” in the mitigation.

State Assemblyman Steven Englebright (D-East Setauket), who chaired the public hearing and leads the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, called Plum Island a “treasure.” But following Mr. Romaine’s remarks, he noted that deer that manage to swim to Plum Island or are seen swimming away from it are shot because “should they escape with disease there could be a potential calamity.”

Calamity is a strong word, but appropriate considering that for more than 60 years, research involving extremely dangerous disease agents, several of which can carry over to humans, has been going on at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

As for areas of toxic waste, for decades no waste was removed from the island, including animal remains, but along with other waste was buried or incinerated on site.

Through the years the DEC has brought charges involving Plum Island waste. And in 2013, in the wake of the federal government’s decision to sell the island for private development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criticized the General Services Administration (GSA) — in charge of the island’s sale — for failing to detail contamination. Before selling it for development, the EPA said, the GSA’s environmental impact statement should have included “a discussion of the long-term potential health implications for future residents.”

The GSA should also have explained how a clean-up “will ensure the safety of future potential inhabitants of the island.”

The federal government had been seeking to sell the island to offset the cost of what it is calling “the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility” it plans to build in Manhattan, Kansas.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell testified that some 600 acres of the 840-acre island have been rezoned as a conservation district and 175 acres as a research district. The island, he said, should be preserved and “responsible access” by the public allowed. “Southold wants to see it stay as a research facility” perhaps to conduct work on “alternative and renewable energy.”

Testimony from environmentalists at the hearing included Robert De-Luca, president of Group for the East End. Mr. DeLuca noted that, “We believe Plum Island’s hundreds of acres of undeveloped shoreline, wetlands and uplands should be permanently preserved and responsibly managed as a refuge for the future benefit and protection of the island’s wildlife and cultural resources. We also believe that the island’s extensive laboratory and infrastructure can be repurposed for the public good.”

“Plum Island is a natural resource jewel,” testified Randy Parsons, land conservation specialist for the Nature Conservancy of Long Island.

As to “why save and not sell Plum Island,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the island “has tremendous ecological and cultural significance.” She blasted a 2013 report “that Donald Trump was interested in buying Plum Island and wanted to build ‘a world-class golf course’ on the island.”

Meanwhile, Michael Carroll, author of the best-selling book, “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory,” regretted not being at the hearing because of a scheduling conflict. Mr. Carroll said he would have “commended the efforts to keep the island in its natural state — largely because there is no way it can be developed for human use.” He continued: “It’s a perplexing situation, and despite good intentions, any human use, whether active or passive, is going to be very problematic. Plum Island can’t be … the Mashomack Preserve …There’s serious contamination on Plum Island.”