Federal spending package includes support for Plum Island preservation effort

Plum Island preservation advocates are applauding language in recently-approved federal legislation that they say brings them one step to conservation.

The federal omnibus spending bill passed by Congress just before the holidays expresses support for the conservation effort and calls for a joint briefing to Congressional committees by involved agencies.

An explanatory statement included in the $1.7 trillion spending bill signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 29 directs the Department of the Interior, Department of Homeland Security and General Services Administration to brief the committee on the closure and process for the 840-acre island’s conservation.

The briefing must also include information on proposed interim ecological management and options for permanent ownership of Plum Island by either state, federal or tribal entities along with costs for management, status and schedule of cleanup and “procedures for a subsequent owner to invoke DHS’s responsibility to ensure that DHS’s certification that its remedial actions on Plum Island protect human health and the environment remains valid.”

Louise Harrison, the Long Island natural areas manager for Save the Sound, said the effort is an important step towards their goal.

“When Congress asks for a briefing in a budget measure, it highlights the need for a high level of coordination and alacrity in reaching a desired goal,” Ms. Harrison said in a statement expressing gratitude towards lawmakers that continue to advocate for the island. “There’s unanimity in the goal of preserving Plum Island; pushing the proverbial ‘devil’ out of the details will help everyone get there faster.”

Plum Island is currently owned by the federal government and has been the site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center since 1954. The government put the island up for sale in 2008, putting the land at risk of development. The DHS plans to close the facility in 2028 to relocate to Kansas, a plan that is expected to cost $150 million.

Plum Island was taken off the auction block in 2020, although the site is still for sale to government agencies. Save the Sound is one of 121 members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, which has been working to ensure that the island is conserved rather than developed.

More than 1,600 supporters sent letters to President Biden last year to urge the president to declare the island a National Monument. In those letters, they argued that the island has ecological, cultural and historic significance. 

A 2020 report from the Preserve Plum Island Coalition details a vision for a 640-acre preserve, 125-acre research complex and a small museum highlighting the island’s heritage and history.

The island is valued by the Montaukett Indian Nation and also home to significant historical buildings including the Plum Island Lighthouse, which dates to 1869, and Fort Terry army barracks that were built around 1897.

Ecologically, the island is the largest seal haul-out site in the state and approximately 228 bird species have been sighted there. The waters surrounding the island are also thought to be pristine as recent dives have uncovered rare habitats.

“This federal funding legislation demonstrates that the preservation of Plum Island is truly within reach, and we couldn’t be more excited about this critical progress,” said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End. 

The bill pledges nearly $13.5 million for the Plum Island Closure and Support program “to continue the transition, closure, and conveyance of all Plum Island real property and all related personal property prior to the transfer of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center’s operational and programmatic missions to the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility,” according to the legislation.

Local elected officials expressed support for both Connecticut and New York lawmakers who have signaled support for the coalition.

“The recent actions by the US Congress and President Biden are the result of years of hard work and advocacy by the dozens of dedicated individuals and organizations which make up the Preserve Plum Island Coalition,” said Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski. “The appropriations language in the omnibus spending bill for Plum Island is clear and reflects the value of preserving this historic and ecologically important island, and its significance for the entire nation,” he said.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said it’s a “vital step” towards preservation. “We will continue and not stop until we are successful,” he said.