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EPA criticizes GSA's Plum Island environmental review

To the left, an undated file photo provided

To the left, an undated file photo provided by the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows Plum Island. Pictured to the right is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Plum Island off of the east coast of Long Island. (Feb. 16, 2004) Credit: AP; Ed Betz

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has criticized another federal agency's environmental review of Plum Island for failing to detail contamination caused by the island's high-security animal disease testing lab -- including disease-causing microorganisms that have led the government to kill all deer on the island lest they transmit those diseases to other animals.

The critique came in a letter sent last week to the General Services Administration, which is in charge of the sale of Plum Island. The lab there is slated to be closed after the federal government builds a $1 billion high-tech National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas, scheduled for completion in 2019.

The EPA earlier had told the GSA that its final environmental impact statement on the island's sale should "include a discussion of the long-term potential health implications for future residents" and how a cleanup "will ensure the safety of future potential inhabitants of the island."

The most recent letter concluded the final environmental impact study "is not significantly enhanced" from the draft and "does not provide a sufficiently detailed evaluation of the potential impacts of the sale of Plum Island." It was written by EPA regional administrator Judith A. Enck to the GSA's environmental manager.

GSA defends reportThe GSA and Department of Homeland Security, which operates Plum Island, defended the environmental review.

"The federal government will conduct any necessary environment remediation" before the island is sold, Homeland Security spokeswoman Nicole Stickel said in a statement.

The GSA said in a statement the review evaluated short- and long-term impacts of selling the island and "identifies measures to mitigate those impacts where appropriate."

"The federal government has the responsibility to certify that all actions have been taken to protect human health and the environment," the GSA said.

Environmentalists said the GSA review is deficient in several areas, from the sale's effect on endangered species to a lack of detail on waste disposal sites.

For 40 years, the island had a waste disposal policy of "nothing leaves Plum Island." All waste was burned or buried on the island, until 1991, the report stated.

Disposal sites in focusThe environmental review notes a 1996 investigation of suspected and known waste disposal sites on Plum Island found it should not be designated a "superfund" site. But it said 24 former waste sites have been identified by Homeland Security and the state Department of Environmental Conservation for "investigation and remediation."

"To our knowledge, there has been no real-time monitoring or testing to provide data about the current status of remediation at those sites," said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for environmental group Save the Sound. The GSA's review "does not have as much information as is needed to comply" with federal law, she said.

A coalition of groups concerned about Long Island Sound requested additional information on the contamination sites from the Department of Homeland Security in November 2010. It never received the information, Schmalz said.

Environmentalists also say the report did not address a concern raised by the EPA in an October letter to the GSA regarding white-tailed deer, which are prevalent on eastern Long Island.

The GSA's environmental review notes that all white-tailed deer have been eliminated from Plum Island -- including "culling" the occasional deer that swims over from the North Fork mainland a mile and a half away. None have been spotted since 2004. The review calls it "a standard safety procedure" on an island where a primary research focus is foot-and-mouth disease, which could cripple the nation's livestock industry and could be spread by deer.

The EPA's October letter raised the issue of when it would be safe for the deer to live on Plum Island again. The final environmental impact statement does not address the issue.

"It appears the GSA did as poor a quality job with the final environmental impact statement as they did with the draft," said John Turner, a spokesman for the Protect Plum Island Coalition and former director of Brookhaven Town's Division of Environmental Protection.

Save the Sound attorney Charles Rothenberger said the final report "did nothing to resolve in any meaningful way any of the deficiencies that were previously raised."

The federal government plans to sell Plum Island to help pay for the new facility in Kansas. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which opened in 1954 and has been described as "inadequate" by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, will be closed once the Kansas facility is complete.

Long Island officials, environmentalists and members of the New York and Connecticut congressional delegations have been fighting the sale.

Southold Town is considering zoning to prevent residential development on the island, and Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) has introduced legislation that would remove the requirement the land be sold.

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