Menemsha Coasties tested for lead

Septic woes staunch station water; old system drained into pond by restaurant.

Coast Guard members stationed at Station Menemsha have been tested for lead, and the station itself is having septic issues. - Rich Saltzberg

The U.S. Coast Guard has tested Station Menemsha’s 24-member complement for blood lead in the wake of child lead poisonings at West Chop Lighthouse. The Coast Guard hasn’t disclosed any testing for lead paint or other sources of lead at the station, but acknowledged it tested blood at the request of those stationed there and “because of West Chop,” according to Petty Officer Nicole Groll, a spokesperson for First District Northeast. 

“Members expressed a desire to determine if they were being exposed to environmental hazards while occupying Coast Guard owned housing,” Groll said. “That concern is also being addressed through the Safe Homes Initiative.”

Unlike the now abandoned housing units at West Chop Lighthouse, Station Menemsha isn’t set up to house families. It sleeps eight Coasties, some just for duty shifts, some part and parcel with full-time residency. The remainder of station personnel live elsewhere. 

Another concern at Station Menemsha is the septic system. The station is experiencing septic issues that threaten water use for showers, sinks, and toilets.

U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Bourne, said Station Menemsha needs “fast action.” He said his office is looking into the issues there. He further said he has been in direct communication with the Coast Guard about the station. 

Senior Chief Justin Longval, Officer in Charge of Station Menemsha, declined any comment on blood testing or conditions at the station and referred questions to the First District in Boston.   

Though the blood tests occurred last year, they came to light only recently after a civilian relative of a Station Menemsha Coastie expressed concerns to the Martha’s Vineyard Times. The relative spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for their relative at the station. A major worry of the civilian relative is that lead exposure will have cumulative negative health effects on the relative, including reproductive harm. 

Lead is a toxic heavy metal commonly found in older paints. There is no known safe level of exposure to the metal. While particularly harmful to the development of children’s brains, it’s also noxious to adults and can cause a number of ailments.

“Lead exposure causes acute and chronic adverse effects in multiple organ systems ranging from subclinical changes in function to symptomatic life-threatening intoxication,” a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) webpage states. “Moreover, evidence indicates that lead exposure at low doses can lead to adverse cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and adverse reproductive outcomes. Current research has found decreased renal function associated with BLLs [blood lead levels] at 5 µg/dL [micrograms per deciliter] and lower, and increased risk of hypertension and essential tremor at BLLs below 10 µg/dL.”

The Coast Guard declined to offer any window into specific results and simply reiterated the reasoning for the tests, “Blood tests for lead were conducted last year for all active duty members assigned to the station to ensure no one was above normal levels due to the environmental hazards they may encounter during their routine work,” Groll said. 

The civilian relative expressed additional concern because test results allegedly weren’t made readily available to personnel stationed in Menemsha, and that answers had to be sought. 

“They weren’t forthcoming with a result that wasn’t a zero,” the relative said. 

The civilian relative said the Coastie in question tested a “2 or a 3” in micrograms per deciliter [µg/dL]. Those numbers are low in terms of how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) gauges adult workers. OSHA standards require blood lead levels of 50 µg/dL and 60 µg/dL for someone to be medically removed from a work environment. 

However, the civilian relative emphasized their concern was the cumulative effect over time, not what a snapshot showed. An article written in 2007, “The Weight of Lead: Effects Add Up In Adults,” pointed out scientists had long thought OSHA thresholds should be revised downward but the agency resisted doing so. The agency does note lower blood lead levels can have deleterious effects. 

“Chronic exposures leading to BLLs above 20 µg/dL can cause subclinical effects on cognitive functions as well as adverse effects on sperm/semen quality and delayed conception,” an OSHA webpages states. “BLLs between 20 to 40 µg/dL are associated with effects such as cognitive aging as well as deficits in visuomotor dexterity, lower reaction times and attention deficit. At BBLs above 40 µg/dL, workers begin to experience symptoms such as headache, fatigue, sleep disturbance, joint pain, myalgia, anorexia, and constipation.”

In March Menemsha Coast Guard personnel were invited to a town hall-style forum about Coast Guard housing at the Tisbury School. The civilian relative said that event “wasn’t very productive” and some Menemsha Coasties left with the impression the Coast Guard wasn’t doing enough to ensure they “weren’t getting poisoned.”

When asked by The Times, the Coast Guard was unable to point to specific lead conditions at the station. Asked specifically if the ground at the station contained lead, Groll said, “We have not confirmed that.” 

The ground at West Chop and East Chop was shown to contain lead following Coast Guard tests. 

Groll went on to say, “The trim around the building — there is some paint flaking there and we are working on mitigating that condition,” but she said she was unable to answer whether the peeling paint contained lead. 

Septic system woes

Issues with a new septic system at Station Menemsha have necessitated periodic water restrictions at the station. The civilian relative said that basically when a septic alarm sounds, the water gets shut off and “there’s no shower, there’s no toilet, there’s no cleaning dishes.”

The Coast Guard admitted the system, which it says was designed by Coastal Engineering of Orleans, backed up into a cellar sink at least once when the high water alarm connected to it sounded. The alarm has sounded several times. 

“On November 4th, the station reported the system had overflowed,” Groll wrote in a follow up email. “That was the third report at that time. On November 21st, Coastal Engineering inspected the system and replaced two faulty floats. [The] system passed all testing. In March, the station reported the system was experiencing high level alarms (last report since Nov. 4th). Engineers went out to investigate and reported the system was operating within parameters during that visit. Follow up visit is planned once travel restrictions are lifted to determine whether water is leaking into the system.”

A Google maps view of the pond near Homeport.

The old septic system at the station didn’t have backup problems like the new one, possibly because it instead drained into the pond next to the Home Port Restaurant.

“The previous wastewater disposal system at Station Menemsha discharged treated wastewater to the adjacent on-site pond in accordance with applicable EPA and MassDEP permits,” Groll wrote. “While the system never backed up, it created significant maintenance and regulatory compliance challenges for the Coast Guard and represented an environmental liability due to the surface water discharge.”

When asked if that pond water is presently being tested for bacteria, the Coast Guard said it didn’t need to be. 

“There is no connection between the pond and the existing Coast Guard septic system,” Groll wrote. “One of the benefits of installing the current system was to eliminate the discharge of treated wastewater to the pond. There has been no occurrence of wastewater being released to the environment that would warrant such sampling.”

Asked if Station Menemsha Coasties could prepare food in the station kitchen with no water, the Coast Guard said “yes.” 

“Water can be shut off for short periods of time to minimize the amount of waste going into the tank,” Groll wrote. ”During these periods, food is prepared using the minimal amount of water necessary.  The current septic system is not capable of moving large amounts of water to the septic drain field. It doses the water in small batches throughout a 24-hour period. Therefore, when a high level occurs it can take up to 24 hours to get the system down to a normal operating level. This type of system is the only system that [the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection] would allow us to use, these restrictions are due to the site’s soil type, and being adjacent to wetlands.”

Groll also noted that absent water availability in the station or the barracks, Coasties can use the shower facilities and restrooms at the boathouse. The boathouse is a separate facility roughly 300 yards from the station. Coasties regularly use ATVs to travel between the station and the boathouse.  

The civilian relative said water limitations are especially worrisome amidst the pandemic when constant sanitation is a must.

“Fix stuff,” the civilian relative said. “It doesn’t seem unreasonable for them to get the contractor back there to see what went wrong.”

The Coast Guard has not disclosed who installed the system. 

Cold barracks are another issue at the station, according to the civilian relative, who said the windows, either because “the installation was poor” or because of their “age” let in weather and make the environment uncomfortable for the Coasties who sleep there, particularly for those soaked from marine patrol who can’t sometimes shower.

“Imagine not being able to shower and then having a cold bed to lay in,” the civilian relative said. 

“The Coast Guard is planning to repair or replace the windows,” Groll noted, “which are drafty. The heating system is working.”

Lead at Station Menemsha shouldn’t be a surprise to the Coast Guard, the civilian relative said, returning to the issue.  

“Remove it or seal it,” the relative said. “None of this should be new information to the Coast Guard. This should have been handled years ago.”

Representative Keating said lead isn’t a problem isolated to Station Menemsha but part of a “widespread” problem at Coast Guard facilities. In part, he said it was a problem indicative of the Coast Guard being so good at holding onto its real estate assets. Addressing the problem, he said, was a matter of “urgency.”

“I wouldn’t think it’d be rocket science,” the relative said.” If you have a building you take care of it.”