State trying to contain rash of mercury spills
|||Nine recent O'ahu mercury incidents|
By James Gonser
Advertiser Staff Writer
State health officials say they have no idea how much mercury was taken from an abandoned pump station near Pearl Harbor, where it all went, or with more contamination sites being reported every day when it will be completely cleaned up.
Bruce Asato ° The Honolulu Advertiser
Carroll Cox of Enviro Watch, right, asks Brandon, left, and Randy Pitts about possibly contaminated areas near Pu'uwai Momi public housing complex.
Bruce Asato ° The Honolulu Advertiser
"All we can do is respond to what we know," said Gary Gill, deputy director of the state Department of Health. "When we are informed of a spill by any means, we deal with it. We are doing everything we can."
Mercury has been found at nine locations from Wai'anae to Halawa since May 12, with most of that coming from the pumping house below Pearl Harbor's Richardson Recreation Center. State health workers and a contractor have been at Pu'uwai Momi cleaning up mercury ever since.
The pumping house is state Department of Defense property, title having been turned over by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which received it from the Navy.
Pumphouse fenced off
The pumping station has now been surrounded by a 7-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Metal screens have been bolted into place over all windows and doors, and a second layer of barbed wire is being installed on the ground inside the fence to increase security, according to state defense spokesman Capt. Chuck Anthony.
Anthony said a joint state and federal investigation will try to determine how much mercury is missing.
"Most of the mercury is likely from this source," Gill said. "Some passed from kid to kid."
State health inspectors and crews from the Army Corps of Engineers visited the pump house Tuesday to determine the extent of the mercury problem and see if any other contaminants have been left at the site. The cleanup has now been expanded to include PCBs and fuel.
Doug MaKitten, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, said the extent of cleanup efforts at the site will depend on what they find, but PCBs probably are present.
Elemental mercury is an odorless, silvery liquid metal. It can cause burns to the skin and eyes and, if inhaled, could lead to problems such as pulmonary edema and neurological and kidney damage.
MaKitten said the survey crew confirmed finding mercury on the ground, but did not go into the building because they did not have environmental safety suits.
Carroll Cox, president of Enviro Watch Inc., a local chapter of a national environmental watchdog group, said health officials are not taking the cleanup at Pu'uwai Momi seriously. Cox said he has interviewed more than 20 children in the neighborhood who easily point out mercury spills in the area.
"The state needs to find and dispose of this properly," Cox said. "We are talking about the health of the entire community. We're still finding mercury in areas where they have already cleared by just looking around."
Cox said children have told him they removed mercury in buckets and by filling soda bottles.
Gill said crews cleaned up a site on Kamehameha Highway near the pump house yesterday after it was pointed out by two children involved with taking the mercury.
One apartment evacuated
Only one unit at the 260-unit Pu'uwai Momi housing complex still is contaminated with mercury, according to health department spokeswoman Janice Okubo, and that unit was so thoroughly contaminated that the floor boards must be removed and replaced.
The family formerly living in that apartment has been moved to a vacant unit.
Okubo said more than 200 Pu'uwai Momi residents have submitted urine samples which were sent out of state for testing. Only two individuals showed higher than normal levels, but not high enough to require treatment.
Crews also are decontaminating items taken from homes, including clothes and toys. Twenty-four washing machines were contaminated and removed from units at Pu'uwai Momi. Only seven have been cleaned and returned to their owners so far, Gill said.
Gill said two bins placed at the housing complex as part of an amnesty program to return the mercury have been a failure.
"One was stolen and the other has collected only trash items, not any mercury," Gill said. "We suspect there still may be some kids storing mercury somewhere out there. We just have to work with the community to try to collect it and dispose of it properly so we don't have to go through this again."
It is estimated that it is costing at least $200,000 to clean up mercury at the housing project alone, Gill said.
He said the primary public health concern is breathing mercury vapors, not touching it.
"If somebody sees a glob of mercury in the bushes, we want to clean it up, but it is not an imminent health threat," he said. "We have been focusing on where that threat is, inside the units."
Nine recent O'ahu mercury incidents
Nine incidents of mercury contamination have happened in locations from Central O'ahu to the Leeward Coast since March 12, when the toxic element was discovered throughout the Pu'uwai Momi public housing project and at Makalapa Park in Halawa. Health officials evacuated the 260-unit housing project and about 40 people, mostly school children, were sent to hospitals to be treated for mercury exposure.
In the most recent incident, a small spill of the liquid metal was found near Richardson Recreation Center. About two to three ounces of mercury were involved.
A mercury spill forced health officials to close the only restroom at Waipi'o Neighborhood Park and prompted officials at nearby Kanoelani Elementary School to keep students inside during recess as a precaution.
Mercury was found at two Wai'anae locations March 18, in a home on Hale Ekahi Drive and inside a pickup truck parked outside. There was concern that the mercury might have been spilled into a storm drain, potentially contaminating water flowing to the ocean, but the Coast Guard said the drain was dry.
A homeless man rummaging through a trash container March 19 at the Wai'anae Mall found mercury in a box of medical supplies at about 3:30 a.m. and called police.
A small amount of mercury was discovered March 22 on a concrete pillar used to block vehicle access near the tennis courts at the Wai'anae Regional Recreation Center.
Hazardous materials crews were called back to the Pu'uwai Momi complex March 25 after children found globules of mercury outside its gates in an area the health department said was decontaminated.
A bottle of mercury was found Monday in the back yard of a home at 94-405 Apowale Street in Waipahu. None was spilled.