Plum Island is hitting the real estate market
Feds planning to set up sales office in Orient click for video
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This breathtaking view materialized after hours of briefings by Plum Island officials, a short tour of certain laboratories at the facility and a bus ride around the perimeter of the island, much of which has remained untouched since glaciers separated the 840-acre chunk of land -- three miles long and about one mile at its widest -- from the rest of the North Fork and Southold Town some 10,000 years ago.
For Tony and Pat Pagoto of Nassau Point, the day cleared up many concerns they had regarding Plum Island, known for decades for its research on foot-and-mouth disease. The couple moved to the North Fork two years ago from Garden City and said that before the tour, they thought of the island as "scary."
But what happens to Plum Island likely won't be up to the Pagotos.
Paula Santangelo, a spokesperson for the federal General Services Administration, or GSA, said this week that the entire island will be up for sale in about six months.
Who those parties might be, what ideas they might have and how much they would pay for the island, which is also home to 1800s-era army embankments and a lighthouse, is completely unknown at this point, Ms. Santangelo said. But anyone interested can stop by an "outreach office" soon to be set up near the facilities at Orient Point.
"It will be an open sale," she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture built the facility on the western side of the island in 1954 in order to study and create vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease -- a virus that's highly contagious among livestock but relatively harmless to humans.
In 1978, the lab experienced an outbreak of the disease, which was quickly contained. The Department of Homeland Security took over the reins of the facility in 2003 under the Bush administration.
But in a few years, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center will no longer exist, said Homeland Security spokesperson John Verrico, who this week confirmed that Manhattan, Kansas, will indeed be the location of a new multi-million-dollar national bio- and agro-defense lab. He expects construction to begin in early 2010.
"It will be the replacement for what is going on at Plum Island," he said. "The facility has served our nation extremely well in the past 50 years, but it's a challenge, being very far away from other research facilities. And it's 50 years old."
Mr. Verrico said that a bio-defense lab has to be a biosafety level-4 facility on order to study diseases that could harm humans. Plum Island does not have those capabilities, but Kansas will, he said.
Whatever funds are generated from the sale of Plum Island will go toward the expense of building the new center in Kansas, a facility that, due to technological advances in lab safety and security, no longer needs to be on an island, Mr. Verrico noted.
"We no longer need large quantities of live viruses on hand, which were lab protocols 50 years ago," he said. "Now we need only portions of DNA to study the virus."
Plum Island will most likely stay up and running for at least the next five years while the Kansas facility is built. And everyone currently working on the island will be offered a job at the new lab, Mr. Verrico said.
But even facing eviction, Plum Island is spending $40 million on two new animal rooms, said Doug Ports, director of operations. But because it is still home to the only lab in the U.S. that can diagnose foot-and-mouth, the investment is worth it, Mr. Ports said.
"If we can build this facility and start doing the vaccine trials that we need, we can move in a very strong path forward in the time frame it's going to take to build that new facility," Mr. Ports said.
During Community Day, director Dr. Larry Barrett explained that Plum Island has always been run like a "small city," relying on the services of the Long Island Power Authority like any other town -- but with enough backup power for six months. The island also has its own sewage treatment plant. Animal waste is heated, ozonated and pumped through the system.
Dr. Barrett also was quick to point out what Plum Island does not study: anthrax, West Nile virus, H1N1, or any diseases that could affect humans, plants, fish or birds.
Still, spurred by 50 years of folklore, the stories about Plum Island continue to circulate: Top secret biological warfare lab founded during the Cold War. Alleged birthplace of the Montauk Monster and even Lyme Disease. And though officials tried to hammer home all day last Friday that the island's squeaky-clean mission is simply to protect U.S. agriculture, some participating in Community Day said that its stigma is hard to shake.
"This was always a mystery," said Tom McDermott, who recently moved to Mattituck from Garden City. "But I didn't know what tremendous work they do here to protect the entire population of this country."
Others in the group, like Bob Feger of Greenport, who was representing the North Fork Environmental Council, said he was more concerned with potential environmental problems with the island.
Addressing those concerns, Mr. Ports noted that fuel oil had leaked into the ground from underground pipes, but since 1998 about 9,000 gallons have been removed. And Lab 257, built as a storage facility during World War I and later used to study foot-and-mouth, is going through its "final gasification" as part of the decommissioning, which has less to do with viruses and more to do with the typical problems of an aging vacant building, such as mold and asbestos, he said.
Mr. Feger later said he would be "surprised if this facility ever closes."
"It doesn't sound like they really ever plan to do this," he said. "How do you sell a facility to support something you're going to build? Are you going to tell people, 'You can't live on the island until we finish Manhattan, Kansas'?"
On the return bus ride, Homeland Security public information officer Kris Garland informed the tourists that 19 osprey nests have been spotted on the island, as have a nesting pair of piping plovers and peregrine falcons.
"We also have a bald eagle living on the northeast end," she added. "Plum Island is also home to about 1,000 rare tiger beetles."
With that, the group boarded the ferry and headed back to the mainland, duly impressed by the wildlife on Plum Island.
"It's a beautiful place," Dr. Barrett said before bidding farewell to everyone on the bus. "And we take [our mission] seriously."
This is Plum History
* 1659: Chief Wyandanch of the Montauk tribe sold Plum Island, named for the beach plums that grow along its shore, to English settler Samuel Wyllys, reportedly for a coat, a barrel of biscuits and 100 fish hooKan.
* 1775: Soldiers were fired upon by the British during one of the first engagements of the American Revolution.
* 1869: The lighthouse that is still visible on the island today was built, replacing one built in 1829.
* 1897: Fort Terry was built as coastal defense for the 1898 Spanish-American War. Many of its embankments are still in remarkable shape today.
* 1911: Building 257 was constructed for artillery maintenance during World War I and was later used as a lab.
* 1954: Plum Island Animal Disease Center was built.
* 1978: The island experienced an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in an outdoor pen.
* 1995: Lab 257 was vacated and mothballed.
* 2003: Plum Island became part of the Department of Homeland Security.
* 2009: DHS is firm on moving the facility to Manhattan, Kan., and Plum Island is soon to be on the market again.
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