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Feds plan to launch new environmental study ahead of Plum Island sale

But an advocacy group that sued to block the sale says the federal government has yet to address its failure to consider preserving the island's open land and its surrounding waters. 

Plum Island in a 2011 file photo.

Plum Island in a 2011 file photo.  Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

The battle over the future of Long Island's Plum Island, which the U.S. government decided to sell almost a decade ago, took another turn when it agreed to address some of the concerns and criticisms raised by conservationists.

The General Services Administration, which manages the federal government's real estate, said Friday that in 2019 it will undertake a new environmental analysis of the island to "document conditions that have changed and new information" developed since the first analysis was finalized in 2013.

Environmentalists do not expect the new review to delay the 2023 sale of the 840-acre island, located 1½ miles off Orient Point. And the Connecticut Fund for the Environment — Save the Sound, which sued to block the transaction, said they still must evaluate how the additional study might affect the lawsuit they filed two years ago.

But Roger Reynolds, chief legal officer for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment — Save the Sound, said in a statement, "We are extremely pleased" the federal government is planning to fix "radical deficiencies" in the first environmental review, which failed to fully assess all the island's flora and fauna, for example.

Reynolds stressed the government has still not pledged to fix a crucial problem in its initial analysis: the failure to consider preserving the island's open land and its surrounding waters, which are home to many federally endangered and threatened species.

Advocates fear Plum Island will be sold to developers eager to capitalize on the high prices waterfront homes can command on Long Island by building McMansions and condominiums. Archaeologists also want to explore traces of Native Americans, and historians want to preserve the 1869 lighthouse and the 1898 Fort Terry, part of the nation's coastal defenses from the Spanish-American War to World War II.

"Since there is no reason to think they intend to remedy this glaring and fundamental flaw, we will continue to advocate strongly for relief and permanent conservation of this irreplaceable land,” Reynolds said.

The GSA and Homeland Security could not be reached for comment.

In the new review, the GSA will count and analyze the island's "biodiversity and ecological potential" during all four seasons of the year, any activities by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and a zoning plan enacted by the Town of Southold in 2013. 

About 80 percent of the island is in its natural state. The land and surrounding waters draw a multitude of creatures including roseate terns, Atlantic sturgeon and Kemp's ridley sea turtles, and its shores attract the most seals in southern New England.

Southold's zoning plan would preserve most of the open space, except for about 175 acres in the west, where a federal laboratory has stood since 1954. Conservationists applaud the zoning rules but fear they might be overturned.

The federal government plans to move the laboratory to Manhattan, Kansas, and Plum Island cannot be sold until the new facility is complete.

That project, according to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Connecticut's two U.S. senators, might not finish until 2023 at the earliest. 

The trio, in an Aug. 6 letter to Homeland Security that was released by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment — Save the Sound, protested its recent decision to stop letting people visit Plum Island, which they said the agency partly pinned on the pending lawsuit.

"We request a clear explanation as to what circumstances have changed recently to justify this abrupt policy reversal regarding visitation — which access has provided the public with the benefits of a much clearer appreciation and understanding of the important research taking place at (the lab) and the ecological and cultural significance of this publicly owned land," the letter stated.

The visits that had to be canceled, the senators wrote, included independent bird surveys by Audubon New York.

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