Feds pursue PCB probe
by Haidee V. Eugenio, originally posted on January 8, 2017
The U.S. Coast Guard has started tapping experts to further investigate polychlorinated biphenyl and other chemical contamination in and around Cocos Island, which the Calvo administration hopes will lead to a complete cleanup.
It’s been 10 years since the removal of source contamination from the Cocos Island beach and shallow water immediately offshore.
Subsequent follow-on site investigations, however, showed small spikes in the level of PCB contamination, which drastically increases the risk of cancer. A contaminant not previously detected in the area was also found. This prompted new rounds of concerns from both federal and local entities in recent years.
Lt. Scott Carr, public affairs officer for the 14th Coast Guard District in Hawaii, said Friday the agency has begun, but has not yet completed, the federal regulatory process for procuring a contract for environmental remediation service on Cocos Island.
The Coast Guard expects to start physical remediation work in 2017.
“We are committed to continue remediation efforts on Cocos Island and surrounding waters to mitigate any risk to the population of Guam. The service will continue to work with our federal and state partners including the village of Merizo, Guam Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reach our clean up goals around Cocos Island,” Carr told Pacific Daily News.
Members of the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit in Honolulu visited Cocos Island in September 2016. Carr said the Coast Guard team gathered information necessary to ensure the next round of investigations are planned and executed based on the actual conditions at the site.
The team also met with residents of Merizo to, among other things, discuss the results of a 2015 NOAA assessment that showed sediment and fish in the lagoon are still tainted with PCBs.
“At the conclusion of the federal procurement process, a schedule with timelines will be provided to the residents of Guam,” Carr said.
Eric Palacios, special assistant to Gov. Eddie Calvo for education, environment and natural resources, said Friday the U.S. Coast Guard’s ongoing process of procuring services for contamination investigation and remediation is good news.
He said, however, that the change in the administration, from Obama to Trump, could impact some of the timelines that the Coast Guard initially planned for Cocos Island.
“The breadth of the contamination on Cocos means that remediation and cleanup will take longer than two years. But the Calvo administration wants to make sure there is a system in place, that the objectives and goals for cleanup will go beyond the present administration’s term,” Palacios said.
The Coast Guard operated a long range navigation station, or LORAN, on Cocos Island from 1944 to 1963. In the wake of the station’s closure in 1965, elevated concentrations of PCBs in sediments and fish were found in and around the island.
The U.S. military used PCBs in the past in electrical equipment such as transformers and capacitors. It is thought that contamination in the Cocos Lagoon is the result of PCB-contaminated equipment being discarded on the land and in the water, along with the transport of PCBs in runoff from the island.
Carr said the Coast Guard performed site investigations in 2005 and 2006 on Cocos Island to delineate the extent of contamination.
In 2007, a remedial action was performed to remove source contamination from the beach and shallow water areas immediately offshore of the beach.
Follow-on site investigations started in 2008 and occurred every two years since to monitor the site for verification the remediation was successful, Carr said.
“The next round of environmental investigations will begin when the federal procurement process has been completed,” Carr added.
Besides finding that sediment and fish in the Cocos Lagoon are still contaminated with PCBs in 2015, NOAA also found a new contaminant called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. It is a pesticide once widely used to control insects that carry diseases such as malaria, but was banned in 1972 because of damage to wildlife.
During a Guam visit in September 2016, Lt. Cmdr. Todd Wimmer, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Honolulu, said the agency was surprised that the contamination levels would show some spikes, when they had been expecting the levels to continue to go down since the 2005 cleanup.
The Calvo administration, through Palacios, said there may still be an active source of contamination that needs to be thoroughly investigated.
A health advisory issued in 2006, which is still in effect today, tells people on Guam to limit or avoid eating fish caught in and around Cocos Lagoon because of contamination. The advisory does not cover swimming, wading, catch-and-release fishing or any other activity in Cocos Lagoon waters.