Plum Island environmental report leaves a sour taste

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Oliver Longwell (center) reads a statement from Congressman Tim Bishop. Plum Island meeting moderator Lee Walton is at left.

Dan Durett of Greenport might have best summed up the North Fork’s reaction to a recent environmental study on the potential sale of Plum Island by the federal government, which is considering building a new animal disease research laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas.

“Are we getting a plum or a lemon?” he said during a Thursday night public hearing on the study held in the Greenport School Auditorium. He asked why the federal General Service Administration chose to focus on potential residential development and not on the educational and environmental opportunities the island could provide.

Throughout the nearly three-hour session, environmental advocates and community leaders painted the document as a lemon. Many described the environmental impact statement, prepared as part of the process of selling the island, as “woefully inadequate.”

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell, a former town assessor, pointed out that the potential property tax revenue the town might receive from the development of 90 residential units on Plum Island was “grossly overestimated” in the study at $42 million annually.

“I estimate it would be one fortieth of that,” he said, adding that it would likely cost more than the tax revenue generated to provide infrastructure and services for residential use of the island.

He and other attendees also said they had concerns about the impact of residential development on the island’s drinking water aquifer, a concern that was not raised in the study.

Robert Hanlon of Orient said he was shocked that there wasn’t a single factor of the sale that GSA determined would have a “major impact” on the environment.

Mr. Hanlon said that, in all of Orient, there are only 730 housing units, while GSA’s “high-density residential use” option examines the possibility of building 765 units on the island.

Mr. Hanlon was also concerned about how medical and fire facilities would be provided on the island, as well as the potential impact of vehicle traffic leaving the island on Route 25 in Orient.

Oliver Longwell, a spokesman for Congressman Tim Bishop, read a statement from the congressman questioning why the study was prepared so early in the sale process. The federal government is expecting to keep the lab in use for at least nine more years while the Kansas facility is built, and President Obama’s 2013 budget includes no funding, for the third year in a row, to build the new facility, he said.

“The final decisions have yet to be made,” he said. “These discussions are premature.”

Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, called the document “woefully and remarkably deficient.”

She cited the island’s bird and seal populations as a prime resource, and urged GSA to conduct a four-season study of the wildlife on the island before determining the environmental impact of some of the reuse options they explored.

“It has the largest seal pull-out cove anywhere in the northeast,” she said. “We’re interested in a real process, a meaningful process, a process that will have value to us… Some federal agencies are aggressively charged with protecting natural resources, while other government agencies are selling them off. You can understand our confusion on this.”

Randy Parsons of The Nature Conservancy echoed her concern. He presented a letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor David Stilwell criticizing GSA for rushing the process and not actively coordinating the research with his agency.

“We believe that a fully considered alternative, which must be included in the EIS, is to have the island utilized as a wildlife refuge or sanctuary, without an increase in development or intensification of human use above the current levels,” Mr. Stilwell wrote in the letter.

Mr. Parsons said there are 24 toxic waste sites on the island, and two spills, including a petroleum spill of nearly 10,000 gallons, in the process of being cleaned up

“We’re not given enough information about the status of the spill and the plume,” he said. “It could all be remediated before any discussion of a sale to a private buyer.”

Mr. Parsons added that, if any potential land seller other than the federal government had prepared such a detailed document without an asking price for their property, with so many toxic waste sites, with a limited and fragile drinking water supply and with a stipulation that the sellers must still inhabit the island for nearly a decade, buyers would tell them to “come back when they’re serious.”

He urged Plum Island representatives in attendance to work to transfer the island to a conservation management consortium.
“We have the time to work out the details,” he said. “Why not try?”

John Turner of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition said he’d seen many environmental impact studies in his life, but the one for the sale of Plum Island was “one of the poorest quality I’ve ever read.”

He pointed out that the Nature Conservancy and New York State prepared an exhaustive document detailing the island’s natural resources earlier this year, but the EIS didn’t use any of that data.

“It’s inconceivable to find the definitive document didn’t find its way into your EIS,” he said.

The last person to speak, Marguerite Smith of the Shinnecock Nation, urged GSA representatives to keep the nation apprised of any archeological finds on the island, where she believes some Shinnecocks may have been buried.

“We know that our people traveled across this way for thousands of years,” she said. “This summer, some of our young people paddled across the Shinnecock and Peconic Bays in this historic route to our brother and sister tribes on Connecticut. It is a region of importance to us….The Shinnecock Nation will request all sharing of information and all appropriate consultation at every stage going forward.”

The GSA is expected to prepare a final environmental impact statement this winter after taking Thursday’s comments, and written comments received by Oct. 26, into account. The agency will then prepare a “record of decision” based on the document next spring.