MINEOLA, N.Y. — Some federal lawmakers want to stop the sale of New York's Plum Island, home to the only national government laboratory studying diseases harmful to livestock and other animals.
Congress voted in 2009 to close the aging lab and move operations to Kansas State University. President Barack Obama's latest budget includes $714 million for the project, and Kansas officials are selling bonds to pay for the new lab.
But lawmakers from New York and Connecticut announced legislation Tuesday to stop the sale, saying it is unnecessary and uneconomical, and the island lab is worth preserving.
"Plum Island is one of the natural treasures of the Northeast," said Rep. Timothy Bishop, a Democrat whose eastern Long Island district includes the island.
"My bill would eliminate the wrongheaded requirement that it be sold into private hands for a fraction of its true value to our nation," Bishop said.
The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island and Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is sponsoring similar legislation.
"Plum Island is owned by the federal government but held in the public trust. This national asset should not be sold to the highest bidder just like Liberty Island and Ellis Island should never be sold," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
"What will the federal government do next to raise money? Sell Thomas Jefferson artifacts on eBay?" said Esposito. "Our natural resources should be granted the same protection as our historical resources."
Plum Island scientists research pathogens like foot-and-mouth disease, which is highly contagious to livestock and could cause catastrophic economic losses and imperil the nation's food supply.
Besides the modern laboratory that resembles a college facility, the island features the remnants of a U.S. Army base first operated during the Spanish-American War and closed in the early 1950s. Gun batteries and parade grounds and barracks remain more than a half-century later.
Security on the island consists of armed patrols, checkpoints, cameras, radar, locks and fences; it is operated under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, which is expected to remain on the island until the property is sold.
Besides a mention in the horror movie "Silence of the Lambs," the island provides the title of author Nelson De Mille's 1997 story about a fictional detective investigating the murders of island biologists.
The General Services Administration, which is in charge of selling the island, issued an environmental review last month recommending that the sale proceed. The agency envisions the possibility of residential development on the island, although a final decision would be left to a new owner selected at auction.
The problem is any prospective buyer for the 843-acre property 100 miles east of Manhattan, likely won't be able to do much with it. Officials in the town of Southold, which will have zoning jurisdiction once the federal property is sold, are studying a proposal that would limit development – a move being cheered by environmentalists. A vote on that proposal is planned for some time in August.
Bishop contends that when the legislation was originally passed, the sale of Plum Island was supposed to defray the costs of building a new lab, but with cost estimates for the new lab in Kansas now past $1 billion, taxpayers will be left footing the bill for most of the new building, Bishop argued.
"Due to cleanup costs from past center activities and the zoning proposed by the town of Southold, prohibiting residential or commercial development, the federal government will receive very little to no compensation from the sale of Plum Island," Bishop's legislation says.
Bob DeLuca, president of the Southold-based Group for the East End, said, "It's hard to imagine a worse idea than selling off one of this nation's publicly owned natural and historic treasures, simply to satisfy an ill-advised accounting gimmick intended to hide the real costs of a billion dollar bio-defense laboratory that we may not even need."