EPA cites concern for endangered species as feds ponder selling NY animal lab island

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. (AP) — A federal review of the proposed sale of a remote island housing an animal disease laboratory must include a study of any impact lab testing had on the environment, as well as consideration of endangered bird species found there, two EPA officials said this week.

"Any potential contamination threats to public health and the environment associated with the existing disease research facility should also be evaluated along with appropriate remediation or removal actions," Environmental Protection Agency regional administrators Judith Enck and H. Curtis Spalding wrote in a June 2 letter provided by the EPA to The Associated Press.

Access to Plum Island, off New York's Long Island, is restricted to the approximately 300 scientists and support staff working at the lab, although officials have allowed the media and public officials to visit on various occasions. Audubon New York volunteers have also been provided access to do research on the bird population there.

The federal General Services Administration is conducting an environmental impact study of the island. The government is considering selling the island because it is planning to move its animal research operations to a new lab to be built in Manhattan, Kan. The EPA's two-page letter was submitted as part of the public comment process being conducted in advance of the proposed sale.

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. In the early 1950s, there was research into the potential use of pathogens for biological warfare. Besides the laboratory, which has its own wastewater treatment plant, the island is home to a defunct U.S. Army base.

A former Plum Island administrator, retired Col. David Huxsoll, a veterinarian who served as the lab's director from 2000 to 2003, has said that anthrax was among the diseases studied at Plum Island.

The EPA letter made no specific recommendations about addressing potential contamination at the lab.

The EPA administrators also noted that Plum Island is home to a number of federally protected endangered bird species, including piping plovers and roseate terns. Also, several hundred common terns, which are designated as a threatened species by New York state, are found on the island, they said.

Sean Mahar, director of government relations for Audubon New York, commended the EPA administrators' letter.

"This crown jewel of Long Island Sound supports such a great diversity of birds and other wildlife, and deserves the utmost protection possible," he said.

The EPA officials' letter said they would be willing to serve as a cooperating agency in the GSA's development of its environmental impact statement.

"The GSA has received a wide range of comments from local citizens, advocacy groups, regulatory agencies in New York and Connecticut, as well as elected officials," said spokeswoman Paula Santangelo. The comments will be posted on the agency's website next week, she said, and responses will be included in the draft environmental impact statement due out later this summer.

The EPA officials also suggest that, while the immediate area around the current lab could be the site of future development, consideration should be given to keeping the remainder of the 840-acre parcel in its natural state.

They noted that the EPA and state environmental agencies in New York and Connecticut designated the island in 2006 as one of 33 "Long Island Sound Stewardship Areas." The designation was intended to raise awareness about the ecological resources found at the sites.

"We would also expect the EIS to address air and water quality impacts of the development and conservation alternatives under consideration, including the potential wetlands impacts and the need for drinking water and wastewater facilities," Enck and Spalding said.

One Long Island environmental activist considers the GSA's summertime timetable unrealistic.

"This letter characterizes the island as a rare ecological gem that warrants protection," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Her group rallied to defeat a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Long Island Sound in 2008.

"The island needs to be comprehensively assessed," she said. "Until we find out what's there, ignorance isn't bliss, ignorance is dangerous."