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For Immediate Release, December 11, 2012

Contact: Emily Jeffers, (415) 779-4253 or

Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Nominated for Superfund Cleanup

Plastic Pollution Killing Thousands of Marine Mammals, Birds and Fish

SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity today petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — including the portion of the enormous Pacific Garbage Patch within United States waters — as the nation’s newest Superfund site. Plastic debris kills or injures thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and turtles every year while contaminating the environment with toxic chemicals.

The EPA’s Superfund program is designed to identify and clean up the country’s most polluted areas. Today's petition, which targets one of the world’s largest marine conservation areas, is the first time that plastic-infested waters of the United States have been nominated for a Superfund designation.

“The waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands contain thousands of pounds of plastic bags, bottles and other toxic litter that’s deadly to seals, birds and other marine wildlife,” said Emily Jeffers, a Center attorney. “Something this big and disgusting needs the kind of attention that only a Superfund designation can provide.”

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, whose reefs and shores are deluged by plastic debris, have long been a haven for marine wildlife. Designated a national marine monument in 2006, this 1,200-mile chain of scattered islands and atolls is home to more than 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The Pacific Garbage Patch is a swirling mass of litter in the Pacific Ocean larger than the state of Texas.

As garbage is tossed into the Pacific Ocean, currents pull the debris into a vast, undulating mass of “plastic soup.” Countless sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals and other animals are hurt and killed. 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. Nearly all Laysan albatross chicks in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, for instance — 97.5 percent — have plastic in their stomachs, fed to them by their parents who believe the plastics are food.

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 then be passed to humans who eat fish like swordfish and tuna.

“These deadly garbage patches have been ignored for decades and only gotten bigger,” Jeffers said. “If we’re serious about stopping plastic pollution from killing wildlife, we need to start the cleanup now.”

The EPA’s Superfund program, officially called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, was passed in 1970 to protect human health and the environment from hazardous substances; it empowers the EPA to clean up areas that pose a threat to a healthy environment. Before a site becomes eligible for cleanup and remediation, it must be evaluated by the EPA to determine the extent and nature of the contamination. Today’s petition calls on the agency to gather data and assess the nature and extent of plastic pollution in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding areas.

Photos are available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 450,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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