Navy puts questions on the slow boat

Nomans Land comment period remains open through October.

Chilmark selectmen were asked to weigh in on Nomans Land Tuesday. — Courtesy Libby Herland

During a two-part web event on cleanup and management prospects for Nomans Land, a Chilmark island the Navy used as a target range for decades, Navy personnel sidelined detailed questions posed by The Times. 

The web event was broken into two parts, with the first offering a period for questions and answers both orally and via a chat box. The opportunity for questions came after Navy officials outlined the status of the island, the history of munitions cleanup there, and what they proposed to do. The island is presently owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Access is restricted due to the dangers posed by unexploded munitions. 

The Navy has already removed thousands of munitions from the island. The Navy is recommending no more invasive searches for munitions — digging — as the activity would be detrimental to the habitat there, among other reasons. Digging was the most expensive of three options the Navy gave. The others were monitoring the island and addressing munitions as they become exposed, or doing nothing. The Navy wishes to pursue the monitoring option. 

Several commenters, including Annie Cook of Chilmark and Bret Stearns, an official of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), advocated for a more thorough cleanup of munitions. Stearns also said the tribe has concerns pollution from the island could contaminate shellfish and other foods.

“The tribe wants assurance that leaching metals are not impacting sustenance foods,” he said.

The Times posed the following questions in the chat box: 1. “Were cluster munitions dropped on the island? Was depleted uranium ammunition fired on the island? Was napalm dropped on the island?” 2. “How many kilos of lead is estimated to be on the island?” 3. “What type of geiger counter was employed to scan for depleted uranium, and was it calibrated for alpha particles? Also, is there any evidence there’s a geologic freshwater link between the island and the Vineyard’s aquifers?” 4. “Who is liable for damage, injury, or death resulting from munitions that travel outside the exclusion zone through weather, sea action, or geologic action?”

One Times question was addressed by Tetra Tech staffer Larry Kahrs. Tetra Tech is an environmental company that has worked with the Navy to remove munitions on Nomans Land. Kahrs didn’t acknowledge the related question in the chat box, but covered the subject matter in the course of a monologue on the island.

“Something interesting to note here,” he said. “Depleted uranium, which was used during the Gulf conflict, is a concern, continues to be a concern, but in this case we didn’t see any evidence of that. We had a geiger counter on the island, and we were screening off all the metal that came off the island — no evidence of depleted uranium.”

The closest the Navy got to touching upon The Times’ other questions was when Navy official David Barney said, “We do have a few questions in the Q and A box I’ll be happy to read.”

That never happened. However, questions posed by others were answered. Reached the next day, Barney said The Times’ questions will be entered into the record, but only answered after the Navy makes a determination on what it will do on the island. Barney said he was not authorized to answer any of the questions himself. Later a Navy spokesman invited The Times to email the questions to him. It’s unclear when or if they will be answered. 

Public comment on what action should be taken next on Nomans Land has been extended two weeks, and now remains open through October. Comments can be mailed to Dave Barney, BRAC Environmental Coordinator, BRAC Program Management Office East, P.O. Box 169, South Weymouth, MA 02190. Comments can also be emailed to david.a.barney@navy.mil