Suit Over Plum Island Sale Will Go to Court

Plum Island is at the top of preservationists' wish lists for its historical structures and natural features. Christine Sampson

A federal district court judge has ruled that a lawsuit by environmentalists over the government’s handling of the potential sale of Plum Island can go forward.

Judge Denis Hurley of the Eastern District of New York ruled on Thursday that the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound and six other organizations have standing to sue the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration over their plan to auction the island to the highest bidder.

The federal government has owned Plum Island since 1899. It has been used as a research laboratory since World War II, and a variety of infectious animal-borne diseases has been studied there since 1954.

The Department of Homeland Security announced in 2005 that the facility’s activities would be moved to the new Bio-and-Agro Defense Facility in Kansas. The cost of relocating to Kansas was to be offset by the sale of the island. Elected officials including Representative Lee Zeldin and his predecessor, Tim Bishop, have opposed the plan.

Mr. Zeldin, in fact, introduced a Plum Island Preservation Act in the House of Representatives, which has been passed twice with bipartisan support but awaits Senate consideration. It seeks to commission the Government Accountability Office, in consultation with Homeland Security, to develop a comprehensive plan for the island’s future. The legislation requires that the plan focus on conservation, education, and research, and include alternative uses for the island, including a transfer of ownership to another federal agency, to the state or local municipality, a nonprofit organization, or a combination thereof.

“The current law, which mandates the sale of the island to the highest bidder, is the wrong path forward,” Mr. Zeldin said in a statement, “because it does not provide for public access and permanent preservation of the island, or the continued use of the research infrastructure. The state-of-the-art research facility at Plum Island must not go to waste, and preserving this island’s natural beauty while maintaining a research mission will continue to provide important economic and environmental benefits to Long Island.”

The environmental groups filed suit in 2016, arguing that the federal agencies violated provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and other federal laws by failing to adequately consider the environmental impact of a sale.

Judge Hurley rejected the Homeland Security and General Services Administration’s February 2017 motion to dismiss, citing arguments in the complaint that the 840-acre island provides habitat for several federally endangered and threatened flora and fauna, including the roseate tern and piping plover. The waters surrounding the island are home to federally listed marine species such as Atlantic hawksbill sea turtles, Kemp’s ridley turtles, and Atlantic sturgeon.

“This is a very well-written decision that denies the government’s motion to dismiss in its entirety,” Roger Reynolds, chief legal officer for the organizations, said in a statement. “We’ll now have the opportunity to present our full case to the court and ask that the sale of the island be halted until the agencies complete a proper environmental review in accordance with federal law.”

The decision, said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, is “an early and important victory for everyone who believes Plum Island is a critical part of our nation’s natural heritage that should not be auctioned off like a piece of meat to the highest bidder. This ruling is also a victory for due process in supporting the rights of individual citizens and conservation organizations to challenge the actions of government bureaucrats when those actions fail to follow the specific requirements of environmental law.”