Plum Island in Long Island Sound is a remarkable place, both ecologically and scientifically. It should be made into mostly a national wildlife preserve rather than be auctioned off.
Federal wheels are in motion to sell it to the highest bidder, though valiant efforts are underway to stop the train.
It's a pity that the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center can't continue its valuable work there. Just this past year, scientists at the lab, 10 miles off Connecticut's shore, created the first vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease that can be manufactured on U.S. soil.
Foot-and-mouth can't infect humans but can spread rapidly through cattle, pigs, sheep and other cloven-hooved animals. It could bring the meat industry to its knees. Britain had to destroy nearly 10 million animals after a 2001 outbreak. But the U.S. hasn't had an outbreak since 1929. That is, in the past 60 years anyway, a credit to the lab, which does research, tests suspected tissue and trains scientists from all over the world.
The 840-acre island has housed the only lab in the U.S. where foot-and-mouth viruses could be studied — until recently. It took an act of Congress, in 2008, to allow the dreaded virus onto the mainland. That was done so that a new lab replacing Plum Island's could be built in the home state of Appropriations Committee member Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, now governor.
It's risky to put such a lab in the livestock industry's midst, even with the state-of-the-art protections planned for it.
It's also a mistake to sell Plum Island to help pay the Kansas bill, which has doubled to a billion dollars-plus and rising.
Righting A Wrong
Connecticut missed an opportunity to stop the auction in 2007, when the congressional delegation — except for Sen. Chris Dodd, who was campaigning in Iowa for president at the time — approved a huge appropriations bill containing the 252 words mandating the sale.
Some 150 Connecticut residents work at the Plum Island lab, commuting daily on ferries from Old Saybrook. The jobs that will be lost are good ones, but the state's larger interest now is in keeping the Sound as pristine as possible.
Don't Sell, Preserve
Federal agencies are going ahead with the public auction, even as resistance is building. New York's congressional delegation is calling for a study of remaining contamination on the island, which the Environmental Protection Agency and Fish and Wildlife have also raised concerns about.
Southold, N.Y., nearly two miles away, would have jurisdiction once the island leaves federal hands. Southold is doing what it can to stymie a sale to developers. The town recently voted to preserve nearly three-quarters of the island as conservation land and allow only research or educational facilities on the rest, with related housing.
The island is home to rare and endangered birds (piping plovers, roseate terns) and plants (an orchid called Spring Ladies' Tresses, among others). The rocks surrounding the island are a favorite hangout for hundreds of seals. The Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups have called for the island to be made into a national wildlife refuge. That would help protect the government's multimillion-dollar investment in Long Island Sound conservation.
It may be a quixotic quest, but the island is a treasure that deserves to be turned over mostly to wildlife, not developers.