Environmentalists sue federal agencies over Plum Island sale

Plum Island preservation

A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit against two federal agencies in an attempt to block the prospective sale of Plum Island to the highest bidder, federal court records show.

The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District Court of New York Thursday, the same day the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that aims to block the government’s sale of Plum Island by barring the use of federal funds to market or sell the property.

The complaint, which was filed by Save the Sound, Peconic Baykeeper and Group for the East End, among others, was announced at a press conference at Orient Point County Park Friday.

The lawsuit, which names the U.S. General Services Administration and the Department of Homeland Security as defendants along with the heads of each agency, alleges the federal government has violated environmental laws by failing to consider conservation as an alternative as it attempts to recoup some of the expense of relocating the existing animal research center to a more than $1 billion facility it is building in Kansas. Environmentalists have expressed interest in turning Plum Island — home to several rare and endangered plants and animals — into a federal wildlife refuge, a move that has been met with support from lawmakers in New York and Connecticut.

“This is the most serious action taken to date, and we do not take it lightly,” said Chris Cryder, outreach coordinator for Save The Sound. “We no longer had a choice but to sue because it became clear that the Department of Homeland Security had not interest in conservation.”

Central to the environmental groups’ argument is language in the measure authorizing the proposed sale that they say should limit the sale only to the 170 acres utilized by the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and not the remaining 680 acres of Plum Island that is unimproved, used for lighthouse operations or was part of the former Fort Terry site. The groups argue that by not considering conservation alternatives for the Island off Orient Point the agencies have violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Environmental Site Assessment laws.

“While plaintiffs would have considered working on a strategy towards a potential purchase of Plum Island in order to preserve this unique ecosystem, defendants have foreclosed that option by misconstruing its legislative directive for a public sale to require an online auction to the highest bidder, rather than a full consideration of all available alternatives,” the lawsuit reads.

The suit claims a sale of the environmentally sensitive island to the highest bidder would damage the environmental groups’ efforts to protect the Peconic Estuary from pollutants, offer environmental educational programs and enjoy nature, among other concerns.

“They are selling our homeland and we have the right protect what is ours,” said Louise Harrison, a conservation biologist and a member of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

With the lawsuit, the environmental groups are seeking a halt of the sale of Plum Island, which is located in Southold Town, until “an adequate environmental impact statement is completed.”

Joining the plaintiffs at Friday’s announcement was Southold Town Trustee John Bredemeyer and Town Board member Bill Ruland, who called it “heartwarming to see so many organizations coming together for a common good.”

Mr. Zeldin, meanwhile, is hopeful his bill will help prevent the federal government from moving forward with an auction of the island altogether, though similar legislation must first be approved in the U.S. Senate.

“Yet again, the House of Representatives is acting to save Plum Island by passing my legislative proposals to stop a sale to the highest bidder,” Mr. Zeldin said in a statement. “It is time for the United States Senate to act and pass my proposals so that we can pursue a better direction for Plum Island that would allow for continued research, public access and permanent preservation of the island.”

Group for the East End president Bob DeLuca said he hasn’t heard of an elected official who doesn’t support preservation of the unique island.

“They don’t make any more of these,” he said of Plum Island, adding that a lawsuit becomes necessary to stop the sale “when a government goes awry.”

Photo Credit: Krysten Massa

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