FARMINGVILLE, New York — With construction of a new animal research facility in Kansas already underway, New York lawmakers met with environmentalists and others to discuss the future of a remote island off the eastern tip of Long Island that since the 1950s has housed the government's only lab studying infectious diseases that could imperil the U.S. livestock industry.
A state Assembly subcommittee hearing Monday examined options for the property, which has been the topic of a long-simmering debate since Congress voted in 2009 to eventually close the lab. Federal legislation envisioned selling Plum Island to defray the costs of a new lab, but no one is sure how much Plum Island could fetch, if a buyer could be found.
Donald Trump has mused in the past about possibly buying it, but zoning laws would restrict most development.
"I've read it could sell for $250 million," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "But that is merely a drop in the bucket toward defraying the costs. The bottom line is there's overwhelming support for protection of what's left there."
Initially, the new lab was estimated to cost $451 million, but that estimate has climbed to $1.25 billion. It is expected that the new lab in Manhattan, Kansas, won't be completed until about 2020, and that transition to the new facility from Plum Island may not be completed until 2023. Approximately 400 people, including scientists and support staff, work at the island, which is only accessible by a government-run ferry.
Local elected officials — including a representative of Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin — appeared united with environmentalists at Monday's hearing in the desire to keep the 843-acre Plum Island property as some sort of nature preserve or park. Experts contend several endangered bird species are found on the island.
For decades, researchers have studied infectious animal diseases on the island, 100 miles east of New York City. The aging laboratory opened in 1954 on property that once housed a Spanish-American War-era U.S. Army base. It has been the subject of a best-selling novel and received a mention in the Oscar-winning movie "The Silence of the Lambs."
The General Services Administration, which is charged with overseeing the sale, has held several public hearings in both New York and Connecticut regarding the proposed sale. GSA spokesman Patrick Sclafani said in a statement Monday that the GSA and the Department of Homeland Security — which operates Plum Island — have yet to finalize any terms and conditions of a sale.