by Annette Hinkle
Bob DeLuca, President of Group for the East End who has joined with over 50 members of other environmental and civic organizations to form Preserve Plum Island Coalition, a group advocating for preservation of the 840 acre island off Orient Point, home to a federal Center for Disease Control animal research facility.
How did the order for this sale come about?
The short story is the General Services Administration was directed to set up the sale of Plum Island back in 2006 – since that time they’ve been proceeding with what Washington has to do to get rid of a piece of property, including scoping sessions. The latest media was the DEIS [Draft Environmental Statement] on the sale.
Ironically at same time, funding for a new facility in Kansas didn’t come through. There was no money allocated for it because the National Science Foundation said if foot and mouth disease got out in Kansas, it could have a potential $50 billion impact.
So there was nothing in the 2013 federal budget for a new facility, though both Obama and Republican senators from Kansas wanted it. It was sort of wired to go but the National Science Foundation piece stalled a lot of things — and Congressman Tim Bishop put forth a bill to defund it – but it didn’t pass.
Which means the GSA is proceeding with its initial orders?
We’ve started the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, [Congressman] Peter King, and [Senator] Kristen Gillibrand are also involved – but how do you turn these guys off? How do you sell the lab out from under itself with no where to go?
It’s a classic example of one agency not knowing what another is doing. The last conversation I had with them, they were going to engage a national realty company.
When this all started, it was the height of the real estate boom – they thought, “An island in the Hamptons in 2007 – what’s that worth?” But it will cost $100 million to shut it down. Then real estate market crashed. The train’s on the wrong track and still chugging along. It’s really a mess and amazing no one seems to have the off switch. Our representatives have been good at beating the drum, but we have to do more.”
It wasn’t long ago that many residents were calling for a shut down of Plum Island. Now you’re looking to keep the facility there. What’s changed?
After 9/11, it was flipped to the Homeland Security Department. There were well defined safety and security risks there. They put $90 million into it to get it up to date. It would be a waste of government spending if they were then to take a wrecking ball to it – the new Kansas facility is expected to cost over $1 billion. A huge amount of money has been invested to make it safe and secure. The sale would throw away a lot of tax dollars.
From your point of view, what would be the best case scenario for the island — a park or a wildlife refuge?
The difference between them is a refuge is designed to protect the plant and animal life and a park is to allow access to humans. I think from the cost standpoint, the government wouldn’t want to run it as a park. It would make a good refuge. It is isolated and already under protection. I don’t have a problem leaving the Plum Island facility the way it is so we can essentially protect the 80 percent that’s not developed. At the same time we want to work on this designation so down the road no one can develop it.
Tell me about the habitat and species that live there.
It’s largely a maritime heathland – bayberry, beach plum and scrub vegetation. There’s a huge wetland on the west side that’s expansive and has not been looked at in terms of what could be in there. There are also ospreys, roseate terns and it’s one of the largest seal haul-outs between here and Maine, with 600 to 700 seals.
It also has an intact understory which we have none of left on the mainland because of the deer. It’s habitat for ground birds. The Audubon goes out there every year — 178 bird species have been seen out there.
Do you have any concerns, environmentally speaking, about what pathogens might be present on the island.
In fairness to conspiracy theorists, in any facility once focused on germ warfare you have to be careful if you shut down – there’s likely things in freezers no one knows about. It’s an inside the fence, outside the fence strategy. When you shut it down is when you open Pandora’s box – going through the freezers.