A Gem in the Sea: Why and How to Take Action to Stop Its Sale

By Jane Fasullo*

If you were to define “a gem in the sea”, what words would you use? Beautiful beaches? Sandy shores? Rocky shoals? Undisturbed? Full of rare and endangered plants and birds? Contains fresh water?

Well, those things and more exist on a tiny island of 843 acres less than a mile from the tip of the North Fork of Long Island. Shaped like a loin lamb chop approximately 3 miles long and 1 mile wide at its widest, it is separated from the mainland by a waterway called “the gut,” where salt water rushes between the Long Island Sound and a combination of Gardiners Bay and Block Island Sound as the tides change. The name the European settlers gave the island comes from the abundant, fruit bearing, beach-side shrubs found there — beach plums, hence, Plum Island.

This island, with all its valuable assets, is in trouble. It may have to be sold to the highest bidder. This is why that would be a very, very bad idea.

If you’ve read the book Plum Island or heard about it by word of mouth, you probably don’t think of it as an environmental gem. You’re more likely to consider it as a place from which distorted animals or animal diseases (like Lyme disease) originate. But you’ve been misled. The book Plum Island is fiction, as are many non-scientific articles written about the island. In fact, the island has a long and varied history, but the point of origin of Lyme disease is not part of it.

In modern times, Plum Island was used by Native Americans for farming and as a hunting ground until 1659, when it was sold by the then-ruling Indian chieftain of Long Island to the son of a Connecticut governor. Following that, more than 20 families owned and used the island for farming and as a source of seafood. In 1827, a lighthouse was constructed at the northwest corner to help sailors navigate through the “gut.” In 1869, the lighthouse had to be replaced by the one that stands there today.

In 1897, the US Army established a coast artillery post on the island, which was then known as Fort Terry. At the time of the Spanish-American war (April 21 – August 13, 1898) the fort was insufficiently armed to be of much use, but, thankfully, there was no need for it. The rest of the island was turned over to the federal government in 1901. During World War II, the Fort was activated as an anti-submarine base and deactivated after the war. Remnants of bunkers and other fortifications are still to be seen, as are many of the buildings used by the officers and troops.

In 1954, because of its proximity to ports of entry and the ability to closely guard it, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) on the island. The Center conducts research on animal pathogens (especially those of symptomatic animals arriving to the United States from foreign countries), to protect farmers, ranchers and the national food supply. Because of the nature of the research, access to the Island and the research facility has been restricted for the past 65 years. To learn more, read A World Unto Itself: The Remarkable History of Plum Island, New York, published in September 2014 by the Southold Historical Society.

Due to its isolation and being heavily guarded for the past 65 years, and the confinement of most human activities to its northwest section, Plum Island has become a place where many air, land and aquatic species thrive. More than 220 bird species (almost 25% of all the bird species found in North America) have been recorded on Plum Island. The eastern end of the island serves as an important seal haul-out site (where seals haul themselves out of the water onto rocks to rest) for harbor and some gray seals, involving several hundred animals, providing for one of the largest seal congregations in southern New England.

Moreover, several species of state and federally endangered or threatened bird species, such as the piping plover and roseate tern, occur on the island, with plovers nesting on the island’s beaches. As to the island’s flora, state ecologists and botanists have discovered more than 18 rare plant species, a few of which are found nowhere else in New York, and delineated several rare natural communities, including a rare maritime dune community. As if that weren’t enough, off the shores of Plum Island lay some of the Northeast’s healthiest beds of sea kelp.

This island is a gem not only for its beauty but also for its social, economic, scientific, military and environmental history — and thus its importance for the future.

But there is trouble in this paradise.

As a result of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, security on the island was heightened, and in 2003, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assumed total ownership of the island and all its facilities. In spite of the change in ownership, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) continued its science mission at PIADC with the DHS in charge of the safety and security of the operation of the facility.

In September 2008, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed Public Law 110-329 (Sec. 540 - New York), part of the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2009. It directed that, if a newer, bigger and more updated National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) were to be built somewhere other than on Plum Island, the General Services Administration (GSA) would close the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) and sell Plum Island at a public sale (auction) to raise money for the new facility.

In January 2009, DHS rejected Plum Island as the location for the new, updated NBAF research facility and instead chose the city of Manhattan, Kansas. It also decided to relocate the PIADC there.

Based on this decision, the United States government prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the sale of the island. On August 29, 2013, the United States General Services Administration (GSA), DHS and the USDA announced a final “Record of Decision,” which determined that the entirety of Plum Island be sold to the private sector. In the intervening years, all the funds necessary to build the new facility have been allocated and the lab in Kansas is near completion. Yet the law to sell Plum Island and a subsequent one in 2012 to use the proceeds for DHS headquarters needs, remain on the books. The island remains “for sale.”

Since the first announcement of the decision to sell the island in 2009, a broad-based coalition of conservation, environmental, and civic organizations from both New York and Connecticut has been growing and working to preserve Plum Island for the public trust. The coalition, referred to as the Preserve Plum Island Coalition (PPIC) of more than 110 entities, including Sierra Club (both the Long Island and the New York City groups), is coordinated by Save the Sound, a permanent program of Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Save the Sound, Peconic Baykeeper, Group for the East End, and three individuals sued DHS and the GSA in 2016 on several counts, including inadequate preparation of the EIS, ignoring the Endangered Species Act, and a lack of consideration of and adherence to the Coastal Zone Management Act. Although the government moved to have the case dismissed, in January 2018, Judge Denis R. Hurley, Senior District Judge of the US District Court, Eastern District of New York, denied the motion and allowed the case to proceed. Subsequently, in August 2018, a notice in the Federal Register announced that a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) would be prepared. Public scoping for the new document has not yet proceeded.

The PPIC is working with representatives in the US House and Senate to generate and pass legislation that would repeal the mandate to sell Plum Island. The coalition also aims to convince New York State to take over stewardship of Plum Island’s natural and historic resources. The Nature Conservancy (also a PPIC member) and Save the Sound are working with the public and government to prepare a transfer and re-use plan in a combined effort, called Envision Plum Island, due late this year.

Any organization that believes in the mission of saving the majority of Plum Island for conservation purposes may join the coalition.

For more information visit https://www.preserveplumisland.org/.

* Jane Fasullo is a member of the Sierra Club LI Group’s executive committee and represents the Sierra Club on the steering committee of the Save the Sound Coalition.