In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, with repeated appeals, made by The Times, the U.S. Coast Guard released more than 400 pages of documents “related to lead, lead poisoning, lead mitigation, or lead analysis” at West Chop Coast Guard housing where two children were poisoned by the toxic metal and two Coast Guard families were forced to move.
The release comes at what the Coast Guard says is the end of an investigation. In an accompanying memorandum from Rear Admiral Joseph M. Vojvodich with the subject heading “Final Action on Investigation Into the Use of U.S. Coast Guard Housing at West Chop Light,” general facts about the lead situation at West Chop and a timeline of lead abatement efforts precede an admission of “confusion” over whether West Chop residences were safe for families with young kids.
As The Times reported on August 21, the Coast Guard conceded it failed to notify families of lead dangers at West Chop prior to those families taking up residence there. Subsequently, two children who resided there were diagnosed with elevated lead levels in their blood — a 4-year-old boy and an 11-month-old girl.
“In July 2014,” Vojvodich wrote, “representatives from First District, Sector Southeastern New England, the Coast Guard Base Boston Area Housing Office, Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit (CEU) Providence, and Coast Guard Base Cape Cod Facilities Engineering Department discussed housing needs and challenges on Martha’s Vineyard. They recommended that the West Chop housing units be renovated (instead of divested), due to significant local housing challenges, noting that Coast Guard families could safely reside in the housing units if the residents were not pregnant and did not have children under the age of six years.”
Vojvodich wrote that a lead contractor abated interior living units in 2015. The work did not include “basements, exterior soil, or other site structures,” some or all of which were known to contain lead. Vojvodich wrote this was due to funding limitations.
The admiral described what led the Coast Guard in 2016 to begin housing families with children on a property known to harbor lead as a state of puzzlement about what reports showed about the property.
“There was confusion regarding whether or not the reports endorsed the property as suitable for habitation by families with young children, whether or not the lead-safe status and remediation history was tracked properly in relevant Coast Guard databases,” Vojvodich wrote, “and what information was used when making housing assignments …”
The families of Senior Chief Justin Longval, Commander of Station Menemsha, and Chief Robert Parent, former executive officer of Station Menemsha, later moved from housing at West Chop in 2018 after further tests showed lead inside the residences there, including inside a child’s toy box. Both chiefs have consistently declined comment to the press regarding lead at West Chop. However, an August 22 comment on a Times Facebook post of the August 21 article about West Chop was made by Robert Parent. Parent wrote, “Feel bad for the landscapers that continued to mow the property, kicking up all the lead-contaminated soil and dust, even after we moved out, and probably to this day! They are breathing all that in, completely unaware. It’s unreal the lack of oversight to protect people.”
A subsequent post by Parent read, “Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty … they missed every one of them.”
A 2014 analysis done by Rhode Island Analytical on “West Chop 1” and “West Chop 2,” the residences at West Chop Lighthouse, concluded in part that “[a]lthough high levels of lead in soil were detected around the perimeter of each house, the soil is currently not a hazard because of sufficient grass ground cover. As long as covering remains in place, the soil will be considered lead-safe.”
Among numerous policy changes related to Coast Guard housing Vojvodich ordered in the aftermath of West Chop was development of “a soil sampling plan to assess any exposure risks due to potentially contaminated soils adjacent to residential housing units.”
FOIA documents indicate the Coast Guard hired an environmental contractor in 2015 to remove asbestos. Among other spaces where asbestos was found was a “closet in a child’s bedroom.”
It’s unclear who was living at the residence at the time, and if anyone received toxic exposure to asbestos or lead.
Asbestos can cause asbestosis, pleural disease, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, among other ailments. These diseases can take many years to manifest.
“Children have more time to develop asbestos-related diseases after exposure because they have more years of life ahead of them than adults,” according to a joint fact sheet from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the Centers for Disease Control.
ATSDR cites the following neurological effects from lead exposure: In children, decreased cognitive function; altered mood and behaviors that may contribute to learning deficits; altered neuromotor and neurosensory function; peripheral neuropathy; and encephalopathy. In adults, decreased cognitive function including attention, memory, and learning; altered neuromotor and neurosensory function; altered mood and behavior; and decreased peripheral nerve conduction velocity.
Other effects associated with lead exposure, according to ATSDR, include kidney damage, changes in blood quality, heart and circulatory damage, immune system problems, male and female fertility degradation, decreased physical development in children and delayed puberty, lung problems, endocrine system changes, liver swelling, eye degeneration, skeletal degeneration, and cancers.