Coast Guard admits failing West Chop families

Families weren’t notified about potential risks; M.V. experience leads to national initiative to test for lead.

The U.S. Coast Guard was aware of lead contamination at West Chop, but failed to properly notify parents. –Rich Saltzberg

The U.S. Coast Guard admits that families were moved into houses at West Chop without being properly warned about the dangers of lead on the property. A subsequent lead investigation, after two children tested positive to lead exposure and the families were moved offsite, showed three locations, including a child’s toy box, where lead was present.

In an interview with The Times Wednesday, Capt. Kurt Virkaitis, external affairs director for the First District, said the Coast Guard’s experience in West Chop has prompted a nationwide initiative aimed at making sure families are living in safe housing. Some 67 houses out of more than 2,600, including one in Beverly, have been identified for further testing, Virkaitis said.

“None of us are happy about how this went down, and we’re doing our best to fix it,” Virkaitis said.

As The Times reported in October, two families vacated Coast Guard housing at West Chop in August 2018 after being informed of lead paint dangers discovered during tests. 

Senior Chief Justin Longval, officer in charge of Station Menemsha, and Chief Robert Parent, the executive officer of Station Menemsha, along with their spouses and children, moved elsewhere on the Vineyard. Chief Parent has since moved with his family to Maine. Both chiefs have repeatedly declined to comment on any aspect of the lead contamination. In a June statement to The Times, Valerie Parent, Chief Parent’s wife, wrote that in July 2018 a pediatrician found her 4-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter had elevated lead levels in their blood. “In September 2018,” she wrote, “the Coast Guard informed us that they were aware of the extreme levels of lead contamination at the West Chop Lighthouse property for more than a decade prior to us moving into the residence. We still remain hopeful that the Coast Guard will do the right thing and provide us with some sort of assistance and closure moving forward, as this has been an extremely stressful time for our entire family.” Later in June, Seamond Roberts, daughter of one of the last lighthouse keepers for the West Chop Lighthouse, told The Times that while she lived there with her family, structures on the premises underwent repeated scraping and reapplication of lead paint. 

“Once we found out about the issues out there,” Virkaitis said, “we took immediate action to mitigate the risk to the families and to move them out of the homes. They were moved to government leases, and we haven’t had them in the homes or anyone in the homes since then,” Virkaitis said.

Without talking about specific health ailments because of federal privacy rights, Virkaitis said the families have had full access to military healthcare. He added that the Guard’s director of health and safety had been personally involved, and has made a staff member available to work closely with the families.

The two houses in question were removed as possible housing in 2012 after a lead assessment was done. “Part of that was deterioration of lead mitigation that had been done out there in the past, but that wasn’t the only reason,” he said. “They had electrical deficiencies and mold and mildew issues due to water infiltration. The decision was made to not occupy the homes anymore, take them out of the inventory, begin the process of divesting the houses.”

But with housing being a big issue on the Island, the Coast Guard took a second look. “Based on the market conditions out there and the difficulty finding adequate housing for our folks stationed on Martha’s Vineyard, they decided that, ‘Well maybe we should re-look at these houses and consider bringing them back into the inventory after investing some money in them, after getting them back up to snuff and making them livable for our families,’” Virkaitis said.

The interior lead was mitigated, the electrical problems fixed, and mold was scrubbed from the housing, he said. However, the basement, the exterior of the homes, and the surrounding property, which includes West Chop Lighthouse, was not cleared of lead, and the families weren’t told that because of contradicting documents between what was mitigated and what the risks were, he said: “The families weren’t fully aware of the potential lead paint on the exterior of the house or in the basement. They had the general warning that there might be lead elsewhere on the property, but they weren’t specifically warned about the yard, or the exterior buildings or the basement. So they probably didn’t have the full breadth of where the risks may be, or some of the precautions they could have taken.” 

The Coast Guard believes it was cross-contamination that caused the positive results in the child’s toy box, Virkaitis said. 

“After an investigation we determined the most likely method of that lead sampling being positive was from cross-contamination from other parts of the property that had not been mitigated. So it could have been basement, could have been outside of the house, could have been yard. We don’t know exactly where. We can’t say exactly where, but we know there was lead elsewhere on the property that had not been treated, and was most likely the cause of it coming into the house,” he said. 

There is no risk to the general public, Virkaitis said, because the federal property is not open to the public at this time.

“As a result of what we’ve learned out of West Chop, we’ve started the nationwide Safe Homes Initiative — a servicewide effort to ensure that our older houses are free of environmental hazards, namely lead,” Virkaitis said. Since being launched last month, the initiative has identified 67 homes that predate 1978, when lead paint was banned. The Coast Guard is making homes where families live or where pregnant women are housed its top priority, Virkaitis said.

“We’re going to verify the records, make sure we don’t have any records problems, take samples, and if there is lead, we’re going to mitigate, move families out, take care of the problem, and figure out how to fix it,” Virkaitis said. “Any of those moves would be 100 percent at government’s expense.”