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Plum Island group tours halted by Homeland Security

Tours of federally owned Plum Island have been halted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, citing pending litigation and the anticipated relocation of operations from the island.

“The Department of Homeland Security has revised its Plum Island visitor policy to suspend all non-mission-related visits to Plum Island and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center,” said John Verrico, DHS chief of media relations, science and technology directorate. “This change is due to current litigation over the island’s future, the increasing activities related to DHS’s ultimate departure and the need to ensure proprieties of the future sale.”

Until about two months ago, groups of about 10 to 25 people could book a tour to Plum Island, during which they learned about the Animal Disease Center, traveled around the island and got to visit Fort Terry, a coastal defense fort established in 1897 and used through the end of World War II. The center works to protect agriculture and the food industry through the prevention of foreign animal diseases.

The litigation referred to involves a lawsuit filed in July 2016 against DHS and the U.S. General Services Administration by environmental groups like Save the Sound, Peconic Baykeeper, Group for the East End and others in an attempt to block the sale of Plum Island to the highest bidder. In January, a federal district court judge denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss that case.

“The purpose of the revised visitor policy is to minimize risks to the government in litigation and the eventual sale,” Mr. Verrico said in an email. “DHS has taken this step to ensure that all potential offers have equal access to information as it relates to Plum Island.”

The island been for sale since 2013, and the Department of Homeland Security plans to build a National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas and move its operations there.

The revised visitor policy has left some groups disappointed and confused. Louise Harrison, New York natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound, said the litigation excuse was surprising.

“It was hard for us to understand why they would cancel [tours] because of the lawsuit if that’s been in play for two years already,” she said.

Save the Sound is a Connecticut environmental organization dedicated to protecting the land, air and water in Connecticut and Long Island Sound. 

One groups that was scheduled to tour the island this summer is The Nature Conservancy. This group had also scheduled aerial topographic analysis work on Plum Island to determine where ground research might be fruitful.

“We had just sent a quotation in, and a week later they said, ‘Sorry, no more tours’ and they are canceling the research, too,” said Marian Lindberg, conservation and policy and adviser for The Nature Conservancy. 

Ms. Lindberg said the organization’s goals and interests remain the same, but will have to be accomplished in different ways. The group is a member of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

“This revised visitor policy will remain in effect for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Verrico said. “As circumstances change, DHS will reconsider allowing non-mission-related visitors to Plum Island based on resource availability.”

Ms. Harrison noted that there used to be controversy and myths regarding Plum Island, and opening it to the public helped dispel some of those misunderstandings.

“When you bring people on the island and you show them what you’re doing, that’s to [DHS’s] benefit as well,” she said. “It made people very happy to finally be able to go to a place where they were forbidden to go to before.”

Ms. Harrison acknowledged the benefits of letting the public see what they are trying to preserve and regretted the loss of potential knowledge of the island’s historical uses by barring researchers and scientists from the island.

“It’s upsetting and it’s perplexing. It brings people back into that heightened mystery of Plum Island, which didn’t seem to serve anybody well,” Ms. Harrison said. “So, I think it’s a shame, but we’re hoping to turn that around.”

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