NORTH FORK, NY — The time is now to start thinking about Plum Island’s next chapter.
So said longtime advocates to preserve Plum Island, discussing the issue at a virtual environmental roundtable organized by New York State Senator Anthony Palumbo, New York State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio, and New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Thursday.
During the discussion, Thiele asked about the status of Plum Island. In 2020, after a fierce battle that spanned years, environmentalists and elected officials rejoiced as they announced that Plum Island would no longer be sold on the auction block.
Mark Woolley, district director for Rep. Lee Zeldin, said he last visited Plum Island late last year. The Department of Homeland Security, he said, is preparing to shut down operations at the facility by 2028 at a closure cost of $150 million.
The DHS will cease operations at the site and move those operations to Manhattan, Kansas; that operation will be called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.
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In the meantime, Woolley said, work is ongoing to repair the Plum Island Lighthouse.
Speaking about Plum Island’s future, Louise Harrison, New York natural areas coordinator for Save the Sound, said since the legislation to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder in 2020 was repealed, it put the transfer of the parcel back into the jurisdiction of DHS. The plan is to go through the General Services Administration to offer Plum Island to federal agencies first.
However, she cautioned, that process moves quickly — and is set to begin as early as March.
The process, as mandated by law, gives federal agencies 30 days to decide if they are interested in becoming the recipient of Plum Island.
“We want to make sure federal agencies are ready to react and understand what the region wants,” Harrison said.
Another major development has been thrown into the mix, Harrison said: “A mega donor is willing to create a fund for a public/private partnership for future management of Plum Island,” she said. That would mean substantial funding for Friends of Plum Island, a new 501c3 now formed to facilitate stewardship of Plum Island, she said.
Harrison said she has gone to Washington, DC with others to explain the region’s “intense interest in Plum Island’s preservation.”
What’s needed, Harrison said, is for Gov. Kathy Hochul to speak to President Joe Biden, to express interest in the preservation of Plum Island, perhaps as a national monument, through the Antiquities Act of 1906, which affords the ability to create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific highlights.
The “mega donor,” Harrison said, is 94. “She’d like to get this settled soon.”
The DHS sent the GSA a “report of excess,” meaning a property is no longer needed. If the federal government does not express interest in taking it, “if they don’t raise their hand,” Plum Island then gets offered to New York State, which then gets 30 days to make a decision, Harrison said.
“It trickles down from there in a rapid-fire way,” Harrison said. “What we don’t want to see happen is no one showing interest and this going back on the auction block again. We don’t want to see that happen.”
In 2020, Congress passed a federal budget package that repealed the auction of the island. “Now the path is finally open for permanent protection of this unique place and its critical habitats, endangered wildlife, and and cultural history,” the Preserve Plum Island Coalition said in a release last week.
“The action restores the normal disposal procedure for federal property instead of auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Next steps then include ensuring the island is transferred to another federal agency, state, or other body, a process that may take several years,” the coalition said.