Lead keeps East Chop Light closed

USCG to clean up lead ahead of deaccession, museum says.

The wooden gate to East Chop Light is screwed shut. — Rich Saltzberg

The U.S. Coast Guard is reportedly poised for an environmental cleanup of lead in the soil at East Chop Lighthouse. The Coast Guard also reportedly intends to transfer the property to the town of Oak Bluffs. 

The Coast Guard either has issued or will issue a request for proposals for the lead cleanup work, according to Katy Fuller, Martha’s Vineyard Museum director of operations and business development. Fuller oversees several Vineyard lighthouses leased to the museum, including East Chop, the museum’s only lighthouse still owned by the Coast Guard. While still in its formative stages, the transfer of the lighthouse could be possible next year following the deaccession, according to Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour. 

“We have that on our radar for 2021,” Whritenour said. Whritenour said there’s been a good deal of discussion on the matter internally and with the Coast Guard. However, he said, nothing is formalized. “We have not received an official notice,” he said.

Lead remains a caveat to any deal. Whritenour said he was informed remediation was expected to be done in the spring. Fuller said the Coast Guard anticipates the work will be completed by April. Whritenour described lead as “a critical issue” facing the lighthouse. Remediation would need to be done to Oak Bluffs’ satisfaction, he said. 

Against the backdrop of remediation and a possible property transfer, the museum has made a $259,700 request for Community Preservation funds to repair brackets that support the gallery of the lighthouse. ICC Commonwealth (formerly International Chimney Corp.), the company did lantern restoration work on the lighthouse in 2019, discovered the damage during that work, Fuller said. ICC will be contracted to fix the failed brackets. Fuller disclosed that during the 2019 restoration work, ICC tested portions of the property for lead. The tests didn’t detect lead in the tower, she said, but a soil test did reveal lead. Fuller said someone from ICC told her if ICC was in charge of the lighthouse grounds, they would close it due to the amount of ground lead. 

Whritenour said his Coast Guard conversations about the property have been with Lt. Commander Colleen Symansky. Symansky is an engineer with the Sector Southeast New England civil engineering unit in Rhode Island. Symansky referred questions posed by The Times about the lighthouse to Coast Guard public affairs in Boston. On Tuesday, the Coast Guard was at work gathering answers to questions posed by The Times, according to Petty Officer Ryan Noel, a First District spokesperson. Midday Wednesday, as The Times headed to print, answers weren’t yet available, according to Petty Officer Briana Carter, another First District spokesperson. 

The Times broke the news of lead contamination in the soils around the lighthouse last October following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records. The Coast Guard admitted tests conducted in 2008 showed a lead in soil content “above the EPA standard” but no data or analysis was released and the FOIA has yet to be fulfilled. 

Tyler Finkle, manager of ICC’s historic preservation division, was a bit more muted than Fuller on lead testing done by his company. He said no official lead testing was conducted however he recalled somebody on the jobsite may have conducted off-the-shelf stick or swab tests. 

Finkle said the crew that worked on the lighthouse was aware of potential lead hazards and wore appropriate PPE. Moreover ICC crews always “act as if” lead were present, whether or not they are informed so, he said. In general, he said all vintage lighthouses can be expected to harbor lead. For lighthouse structures, he said lead paint can be effectively encapsulated. He could not speak to soil remediation as that’s not something his company does. He also said he was not aware the Coast Guard planned to remediate the soil there. Concerning the repair work, Finkle said during the 2019 restoration a stainless steel band was installed to temporarily shore up the gallery until a dedicated repair operation could be mounted. 

The construction fencing originally placed to cordon off the 2019 restoration work remains in place. Fuller said that was an agreement the museum and Oak Bluffs came to to keep folks out because of the lead hazard. Additionally the gate in the wooden fence that runs along East Chop Drive has been screwed shut. 

“The lead issue is a critical issue with that historic resource,” Whritenour said. 

The lighthouse sits on a 40 foot by 40 foot piece of federal real estate, Oak Bluffs Highway Superintendent Richard Combra Jr. previously told The Times. The rest of the land there is a park owned by Oak Bluffs. Whritenour said any lead remediation work done by the Coast Guard would need to be double checked by the town and may require additional test work before the town would agree to take responsibility for the lighthouse.

“We would have to verify the state of the property,” he said.

Nothing will move forward from the town’s end “at least until the lead remediation is completed,” he said.

The museum presently leases the lighthouse from the Coast Guard. That lease is up shortly, Fuller said. If the town takes control of the lighthouse, Whritenour said he hopes to work out a similar arrangement so the museum can continue to lease the lighthouse for tours and events.

“That’s the model that has proven to be successful,” he said.