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New Midway Mission: Get the Lead Out

Friday, June 22, 2012

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Completing a historic transition “from bullets to birds,” the U.S. has agreed to clean up lead-based paint, asbestos and other waste that is killing thousands of endangered seafowl each year at its former military base on Midway Atoll.

In a Settlement Agreement announced Monday (June 18), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committed to cleaning up the 2.4-square-mile site in the Hawaiian archipelago by 2017.

From Naval Base…

The settlement came more than two years after the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a Notice of Intent to Sue the federal agency, contending that the ongoing environmental damage at Midway violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

 Laysan albatross (“gooney birds”) are dying from lead paint poisoning.

 Center for Biological Diversity

Laysan albatross (“gooney birds”) by the thousands are dying from ingestion of lead paint and other wastes left by the U.S. military at Midway Atoll, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Notice says that the paint and waste at the old Naval base are poisoning up to 10,000 Laysan albatross chicks (“gooney birds”) each year and are also threatening the endangered Laysan duck.

The U.S. Navy had custody of the base on the three-island atoll from 1903 to 1996. U.S. forces there repulsed an attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack. More famously, the U.S. Navy defeated the Japanese Navy there the following year in a legendary battle that sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and brought down hundreds of Japanese aircraft.

…To Bird Base

In 1988, while still controlled by the Navy, Midway became a National Wildlife Refuge. In 1996, the Department of the Interior took jurisdiction of the site, promoting its transition “from bullets to birds.”

Now home to about 470,000 pairs of birds, the refuge is the world’s largest breeding ground of Laysan albatross and the second-largest breeding ground of the black-footed albatross. The Laysan species is classified as Vulnerable to Extinction; the black-footed species is considered Endangered.

The species took another hit with the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which killed an estimated 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks and more than 2,000 adults at Midway Atoll. The albatross are also threatened in the United States and internationally by long-line fisheries and accelerating sea-level rise, environmentalists say.

Lead Paint Poisoning

And yet, lead paint continues to peel and waste remains from old military buildings, lift stations, electrical substations, flag poles, hydrants and other structures.

Chicks and other seabirds eat the paint, causing nervous-system damage called “droopwing” that leaves them unable to lift their wings, the Center says. The wings drag on the ground, leading to open sores, fractures and a slow, painful death.

 Oil tanks burn on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, following the Japanese air attack of June 4, 1942.

 U.S. Navy

Behind three Laysan albatross chicks (foreground), oil tanks burn on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, following the Japanese air attack of June 4, 1942.

The threat isn’t new—about 37 of 95 buildings have been cleaned of the paint since 2005—but environmental groups say the government is dragging its feet on the issue. The remaining buildings are unstable, and many contain asbestos and other toxins.

The Center’s Notice says that the Navy allocated funds for clean-up when the base was transferred to the Interior Department, “although it is uncertain that cleanup was ever conducted.”

The Center’s February 2010 threat to sue spurred the government to release $4.7 million last year to accelerate cleanup.

Settlement Agreement

In addition to the clean-up, the settlement agreement requires the Interior Department to provide the Center with an annual report on the clean-up. It also allows the Center or third parties potential access to test for contaminants in the Laysan duck.

Even under the settlement agreement, clean-up will not come quickly. Work is limited to July, August and September, when the albatross aren’t nesting or are largely away from Midway.

“The albatross nest is literally everywhere, except on roads and rooftops,” said Barry Stieglitz, refuge supervisor for the agency’s Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. 

Restoring a ‘Rightful Role’

Center for Biological Diversity officials hailed Monday’s agreement.

“Midway Atoll provides unparalleled nesting habitat for albatross, which fly thousands of miles over the Pacific Ocean in search of food and return to the atoll to nest each year,” said Dr. Shaye Wolf, the Center’s Climate Science Director.

“Without this cleanup, their amazing efforts would continue to be wasted as chicks die of lead poisoning. The service’s agreement to finally clean up this dangerous lead-based paint is an important step toward returning this tiny island to its rightful role as a haven, not a deadly trap, for wildlife.”


Tagged categories: Hazardous waste; Lead paint abatement; Paint disposal; Pipelines; Power Plants; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); U.S. Navy

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