Despite numerous indicators lead contamination was pervasive at West Chop Lighthouse, the U.S. Coast Guard decided to place families with children there anyway. Among other reasons, the Coast Guard did this because of the high cost of housing on Martha’s Vineyard. New information about what led up to the decision to lodge families at West Chop recently became available following a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Martha’s Vineyard Times in September.
On Feb. 3. the Coast Guard released a 19-page report on its investigation of West Chop housing. The report chronicles repeated efforts by the Coast Guard to test for lead hazards at the lighthouse, repeated attempts to abate or mitigate identified hazards, and a series of decisions and counter-decisions about retaining or disposing the housing there. The report comes after the Coast Guard made over 400 pages of material “related to lead, lead poisoning, lead mitigation, or lead analysis” publicly available in August following a protracted FOIA process initiated by The Times. Also released in August was a four-page Final Action Memo by Rear Admiral J.M. Vojvodich, which lightly summarized some of the events at West Chop that led to the lead poisoning of a 4-year-old boy and an 11-month-old girl who lived at one of the houses at the station. The children’s elevated blood levels were discovered through a routine pediatric evaluation.
Rear Admiral Vojvodich’s memo closed out the Coast Guard’s investigation into circumstances at West Chop, and heralded a program called the Safe Homes Initiative, meant to identify environmental hazards at Coast Guard housing, update documentation about such housing, and provide relocation assistance for families living in contaminated housing. The program comes as a direct result of the ordeals Chief Robert Parent and his family and Senior Chief Justin Longval and his family endured while living at West Chop Lighthouse.
The investigation, which is authored by Capt. C.M. Pak, showed that in 1993 the Coast Guard’s Civil Engineering Unit (CEU) from Providence, R.I., removed lead paint from interior and exterior woodwork, replaced windows, encapsulated lead paint, and encapsulated interior “plaster and ceilings” with gypsum board at the houses. In 2004, lead paint sampling “suggested additional testing and abatement may have been warranted, no records or evidence suggest that further action was taken in the 2004-2012 timeframe,” Pak’s memo states. In 2007, a Coast Guard site investigation at West Chop Lighthouse found “the surface soil has been impacted by historic use of lead-based paint to an extent significantly above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] standards.”
A Coast Guard “Tiger Team” found in 2012 that “living spaces” at West Chop housing harbored “Action” and “Major” levels of lead. That team declared the houses “inadequate.”
In 2013 West Chop Lighthouse homes went under consideration for divestiture, and any work orders for them were suspended.
In 2014 a “Decision Memo” recommended getting rid of the West Chop houses. “The presence of Lead Based Paint (LBP) on the baseboards, doors, and window trim, as well as the plaster of some walls makes both buildings unacceptable for residential use by children under 6 and pregnant women,” that memo states. The memo went on to argue unloading the houses came with pluses and minuses. “Divestiture of the property would relieve the Coast Guard of the obligation to abate interior lead paint hazards, but remediation of lead-contaminated soil would be required,” the memo stated.
However, the same year a consultant found that save for “‘limited areas with minor [lead-based paint] damage and some surfaces with elevated lead in dust levels, the housing units are near to a lead-safe condition. Even though many of the surfaces have LBP over the regulatory thresholds, the fact that they are in sound condition would render them lead-safe.’”
That consultant also concluded grass was a sufficient shield against soil-borne lead.
“Although not an immediate hazard, levels of lead in soil over the acceptable thresholds were found around the perimeter of each house. The soil is currently not a hazard because of sufficient grass ground cover,” the memo states.
A proposal was subsequently made to “restore the West Chop Housing” to adequacy standards and return them to the Coast Guard housing inventory. A Coast Guard business case analysis for the Vineyard “compared the options to lease, purchase new, or remediate the existing housing. The cost benefit analysis demonstrated [a] renovation project for the West Chop housing units was the most cost-effective option over a 25-year period.”
Pak noted the costliness of Vineyard rentals as a motivating factor in choosing to reoccupy the homes.
“The exigency with which the West Chop housing was needed, the unsustainable costs of leased homes on Martha’s Vineyard,” Pak wrote, “and the opportunity for cost savings demonstrated in a business case analysis made reactivating the houses with a short-term … project to abate the [lead-based paint] the preferred solution …”
In 2015 the Coast Guard’s Civil Engineering Unit from Providence hired Tantara Corp. a “complete lead based paint (LBP) abatement and remediation” of living spaces in the two houses. Tantara provided the Coast Guard with documentation from a “licensed lead inspector and risk assessor.” That documentation concluded, “Properties are now in what could be characterized a lead-safe condition.”
The Civil Engineering Unit “did not complete, and did not intend to complete, abatement and remediation of the basements, soils, or exterior structures on the West Chop property, which have ‘Action’ and ‘Major Level’ findings by [EPA] standards,” Pak’s memo states.
In 2016 the Coast Guard rescinded its declaration of inadequacy for the two houses.
The Coast Guard went on to move two families into those houses, and later admitted it neglected to tell those families of the possible lead risks associated with living at West Chop Lighthouse.
In 2018, blood samples of two Parent family children showed elevated blood levels.
Rear Admiral Vojvodich wrote that testing was ordered following the blood tests. “Thirty total samples were taken from the two West Chop housing units,” Vojvodich wrote. “Nine of those samples had a detectable concentration of lead. Three of the 30 samples exceeded the action level (two from the basement floors, and one from the bottom of a toy chest). Seven other wipe samples taken outside the residence[s] showed lead concentrations at the action and major findings level (including the Fog Signal Building, the Garage, the Paint and Oil Locker, and in the soil on the property).”
Both the Longval family and the Parent family subsequently moved.
The opinion section of Captain Pak’s report, comprising roughly 3.5 pages, is wholly redacted. Dated March 31, 2019, his report states the investigation is closed.
Vojvodich’s memo, dated in July, also declares the investigation closed. Vojvodich concluded that the degradation of past abatement work and the lack of abatement or mitigation work in certain areas contributed to the presence of lead.
Additionally, he wrote, “There was confusion regarding whether or not reports endorsed the property as suitable for habitation by families with young children, whether or not the lead-safe status was tracked properly in relevant Coast Guard databases, and what information was used when making housing assignments.”
To date, it’s unclear if anyone or any unit has been formally held accountable for the children’s poisonings, or if the incidents have been simply chalked up to consequential bureaucratic blunders.
As part of the normal Coast Guard rotation process, the Parent family moved to Maine. Valerie Parent, the children’s mother, has been sparing in her comments about the matter, and hasn’t elaborated on any health effects, if any, lead may have induced. Chief Parent has declined to comment to the press. Senior Chief Longval, officer in charge at Station Menemsha, lives in leased Coast Guard housing on the Vineyard. He and his family have declined any comment on the matter.
Lead is a soft metal and a potent neurotoxin, with no known safe exposure threshold, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Lead is particularly harmful to the development of children’s brains, but can have a variety of deleterious effects on people across the age spectrum.
“In 1977, the Consumer Products Safety Commission limited the lead in most paints to 0.06 percent (600 ppm by dry weight),” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). “Since 2009, the lead allowable in most paints is now 0.009 percent. Paint for bridges and marine use may contain greater amounts of lead.”
West Chop Lighthouse dates from the end of the 19th century, when lead paint was routinely used there, and lead contents in paints of the era were often high.