We’ve known for sometime that plastic garbage and refuse is wreaking havoc in the delicate ecosystem of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But did you know birds and sealife there also have to contend with PCBs and lead from junk we buried there during and after World War II?
For 37 years, the U.S. military buried highly toxic batteries, capacitors and transforms in the sand of Tern Island, which is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and is part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. In a news release sent out today, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Fish and Wildlife Service say that from 1942 to 1979, U.S. military forces dumped all sorts of electronic waste containing “hazardous” PCBs and lead into the ground at the island. In tin-plated government speak, this means “further action is warranted.”
The island was enlarged by the U.S. Navy in 1942 and used until 1946 as a naval airfield and aircraft refueling stop,” states the news release. “It was subsequently occupied mainly by the U.S. Coast Guard for use as a Long Range Navigation (LORAN) radio station until 1979. During this time the military discarded and buried materials such as batteries, capacitors, and transformers on-site. These materials have been shown to contain hazardous substances such as PCBs and lead, which are released into the environment.”
This new assessment came about because the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the EPA in December 2012 asking them to study the “hazards posed by plastic pollution” to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands environment. Nearly a year after that petition, the EPA designated Tern Island a Superfund site.
“Plastic debris kills or injures thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and turtles every year,” states a Nov. 18, 2013 Center for Biological Diversity news release. “Some wildlife are entangled and drowned; others are strangled or suffer from lacerations and infection. Still others starve after consuming plastic because it creates false feelings of satiation. Plastic is also a source of toxic chemicals that, after being consumed by fish and birds, move up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals. These toxins can be passed to humans who eat fish like swordfish and tuna.”
For the endangered birds and sea life that make their home on Tern Island (and the surrounding French Frigate Shoals), this is good news, though they also still have to contend with the aforementioned plastic pollution as well as ocean acidification, sea level rise and all the other perks that come from climate change. There are about 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the Fish and Wildlife Services says their numbers have been “steadily declining.” The French Frigate Shoals are also a nesting habitat for 95 percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles (which are a threatened species) and Tern Island itself is also a breeding site for 18 species of seabird.
“The Service is committed to continuing to work with the EPA to establish next steps for further action at Tern Island,” said Kevin Foerster, Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System in the Pacific Region, said in the news release. “Tern Island is part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and an important oasis of protection for marine mammals like the endangered monk seal, threatened green sea turtles, and many different species of seabirds.”
Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, agreed.
“Tern Island is home to the Hawaiian monk seal, the United States’ most endangered marine mammal and the official state mammal of Hawaii,” said Blumenfeld in the news release. “We must move forward to protect the seals and all the wildlife dependent on this extraordinary Pacific island.”
Click here for more info on the Tern Island assessment.
Photo of Great frigatebirds and red-footed boobies at Tern Island: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Pacific Region/Wikimedia Commons