Donate Sign up for e-network
CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Because life is good

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Find out more from the
Center for Biological Diversity:
Ocean Plastics Pollution 
Honolulu Civil Beat, December 10, 2012

Superfund Designation Sought For Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
By Sophie Cocke

Could the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands become another Love Canal?

The Center for Biological Diversity, a mainland conservation group, has taken the unusual step of pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian islands and parts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a Superfund cleanup site.

“We think that plastic pollution is an increasing threat to our nation’s wildlife and particularly the wildlife in the northwest Hawaiian islands where you would hope, as a marine monument, it would have extra protections,” said Emily Jeffers, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

She said 267 species have been documented to have been affected by plastics, through entanglements or ingestion.

“It’s a problem that’s getting worse and worse as we use more disposable plastic," Jeffers said.

The environmental group filed a petition with the EPA on Tuesday to review the areas as Superfund sites. The federal designation was initiated in 1970 as a way to prioritize cleanup efforts of hazardous waste sites that could be harming people or local ecosystems.

The designation would be the first for plastic marine debris, said Jeffers.

Dean Higuchi, a spokesman for the EPA in Hawaii, said that the agency was currently reviewing the petition so he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the request.

“It’s not really common for people to make petitions like this and so we are trying to figure out the next steps,” he said.

William Aila, head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the state agency which shares jurisdiction with the federal government over the area, hadn't seen the petition yet. He applauded efforts to increase money for cleanup but said he wouldn't want federal designation to trump the strict permitting process for the area.

There are hundreds of sites throughout the U.S. listed as Superfund sites, perhaps the most famous being Love Canal, a housing development in upstate New York that was built atop a dumping ground for dangerous chemicals.

In Hawaii, there are four Superfund sites on Oahu, including the Pearl Harbor Naval Complex, which is contaminated with metals and chemicals, and Del Monte’s old pineapple plantation in central Oahu where chemicals from fumigants used in the 1940s were found to be contaminating groundwater, according to the EPA.

While the Northwestern Hawaiian islands and a portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch would be the first Superfund sites based on marine debris, there are other waterways that have been given the designation. Off the coast of Los Angeles, the Palos Verdes Shelf is listed as a Superfund site because of the existence of large deposits of toxic chemicals. The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, a cesspool of chemical contaminants, is also listed.

Could Superfund Designation Help?

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, also known as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, was given national protection in 2006. The chain of islands is scattered across 1,200 miles of the Pacific Ocean.

But increasing amounts of plastic debris and abandoned fishing gear are taking a toll on the marine environment.

In the remote island chain, 98 percent of Albatross chicks have been found to have shards of plastic in their stomachs, according to one report from the University of Southern California. Researchers have found dozens of monk seals entangled in derelict fishing gear. And the mounds of plastic debris washing up on beaches is only expected to increase.

Jeffers said that the EPA could pay to clean up the reefs and shorelines. Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been doing some mitigation in the region. NOAA estimates that 52 tons of debris accumulates in the islands every year.

However, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive depository of plastics roughly the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, is more complicated. The EPA would only have jurisdiction in federal waters, which extend 200 miles off shore.

Jeffers said that the Center for Biological Diversity believes that part of the Patch, even though a small one, is in U.S. waters. But finding that spot could be elusive because the huge swath of debris is constantly being moved by currents.

“It’s a moving target. It’s hard to pin down,” said Jeffers.

Being labeled as a Superfund site could increase money available for cleanup operations. But what the Center for Biological Diversity wants is to also stop plastics from getting into the ocean in the first place.

Many of the plastics entering the oceans are believed to come from land-based sources such as runoff and people not disposing of their garbage properly, as well as cargo falling off ships or being dumped overboard, according to NOAA.

Jeffers said that the first step to combatting the problem is better identifying the sources, which is one of the reasons the Center for Biological Diversity brought the petition.

“I think the idea would be for the EPA to get a handle on where it comes from so it never enters the marine environment in the first place,” she said.

“I think this might not solve the problem, but I think it’s a good first step to making sure the dangers are addressed.”

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton