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Plum Island is saved after all

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published August 30. 2013 4:00AM

Residents of Southold, N.Y., 1, federal officials 0.

That's the latest scorecard on securing a safe, environmentally sound future for Plum Island, a 3-mile-long, 840-acre refuge between eastern Connecticut and the north fork of Long Island.

Just last week, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney led a water tour around the island, touting their plan to legislatively steer the island into a conservation-minded federal agency.

Current federal plans, hatched during the George W. Bush years and approved by Congress, are to transfer the animal disease lab on Plum Island to Kansas, financing the move, in part, by selling off the island.

Courtney, Blumenthal and others have a legislative plan to make the government, in disposing of the island, abide by the usual practice of offering surplus land to other agencies - in this case, possibly the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Members of the New York and Connecticut delegations would also like to keep the lab and its 400 jobs here.

The plan to save Plum Island is a work in progress in Washington.

But this week, the people of Southold, which includes Plum Island, took matters into their own hands, promising there won't be any Plum Island estates or any new development that could harm the natural habitat or create new traffic problems on the two-lane road that leads to the end of the north fork.

The Southold Town Board unanimously approved new zoning for Plum Island that would create two new districts, a big one for conservation, and a smaller one which would allow only research laboratories like the one that is there now.

The new zoning would prohibit development on a large portion of the island and allow only housing related to the research facility.

Boom. There went the shot across the bow of the federal government, which now probably won't be able to build much in Kansas from the proceeds of selling Plum Island.

Who will pay a lot of money for an island you can't develop?

Until now, developers might have been licking their chops at the idea of an opportunity, once the skull and crossbones flag comes down, to buy one of last big pieces of undeveloped waterfront in the Northeast, within spitting distance of the hyper-expensive Hamptons.

There have been a lot of scary reports and rumors about Plum Island over the years, including one strange book that came out in 2004, suggesting a lack of controls at the Plum Island lab were responsible for Lyme disease.

A 2003 Government Accountability Office study made some scary suggestions about the potential for terrorist attacks on the island, finding that guards didn't have the authority to carry guns or sound an alarm in the event of an attack.

More fears were fueled when an associate of Osama bin Laden was arrested and found to be carrying a New York Times story about the island.

Adding to the Plum Island intrigue, environmentalists trying to preserve the island recently unearthed a report that the remains of a huge woolly mammoth was discovered in a sand dune in the late 19th century.

That report was debunked, though, by historians who said the 1879 article in a Long Island newspaper was probably about a woolly mammoth found on Plum Island, Mass.

In 1978, there was a release of foot-and-mouth disease from the Plum Island laboratory here to animals outside the containment area, but it did not leave the island.

Environmental studies have indicated the island should be safe once the laboratory is closed, though erasing the stigma of the place could prove to be a little harder.

Congressmen like Blumenthal and Courtney should be commended for making the effort to save the island from development. They can still work at keeping the lab jobs here.

But it looks like the people of Southold have won the race to conserve Plum Island.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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