Updated Feb 3
The U.S. Coast Guard is poised to conduct an environmental assessment of lead contamination at East Chop Light, a lighthouse long leased to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. A popular tourist attraction and wedding venue, the lighthouse and a small plot it sits on are surrounded by Telegraph Hill Park, public recreation property owned by the town of Oak Bluffs.
In 2019, the Coast Guard admitted prior testing revealed soil lead levels at the lighthouse were “above the EPA standard,” but were unable to provide any analytical data. A museum officer and a town official both said they were unaware of soil lead at the lighthouse at the time. Martha’s Museum executive director Heather Seger reaffirmed the museum’s position.
“To the best of my knowledge, and we’ve looked through our files, the museum had no knowledge about test results revealing high levels of lead at the East Chop Lighthouse,” Seger said.
Asked by The Times whether or not it made the museum or Oak Bluffs aware of the lead contamination, the Coast Guard could find no evidence it provided such notice.
“The Coast Guard has no record of any formal notification provided to the museum or the town of Oak Bluffs regarding lead levels in the soil near the East Chop Lighthouse,” Petty Officer Amanda Wyrick emailed.
A report obtained by The Times through a records request indicates the Coast Guard knew about the lighthouse contamination longer than it previously admitted, as far back as 2003. That year, soil samples taken from the entrance walkway and tower drip line showed lead concentrations of 2,840 mg/kg (milligrams per kilogram) and 3,166 mg/kg, respectively. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thresholds for concern and cleanup are 400 mg/kg for anywhere considered a children’s play area, and 1,200 mg/kg elsewhere. Soil testing done in 2007 within three feet of the lighthouse showed concentrations of lead between 3,210 and 3,179 mg/kg for one sample, and between 3,452 to 3,670 mg/kg for another sample. “Results indicated that 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,” the report states. Upon reviewing the report, museum director of operations and business development Katy Fuller described the testing data it revealed as “upsetting.” She said it was “concerning” the information had been withheld for so long.
“I think there’s a lack of trust, based on how long they’ve known,” Fuller said. She expressed doubt about reopening the lighthouse anytime soon.
East Chop Lighthouse isn’t the only Coast Guard facility of its type where lead contamination has proved problematic. One town over in Vineyard Haven, West Chop Lighthouse and the Coast Guard residences adjacent to it suffered from lead problems the Coast Guard failed to properly remediate. As a result, two children from Coast Guard families living there developed elevated levels of lead in their blood. The families moved out, and the follow-up investigation triggered a nationwide examination of Coast Guard housing. Records previously obtained by The Times though Freedom of Information Act requests revealed the Coast knew lead hazards existed at West Chop but allowed families to move in there regardless.
On Tuesday, a contractor was expected to begin a more detailed survey of lead contamination at the lighthouse. That work has been delayed until Thursday, according to Petty Officer Wyrick. Communication to the museum indicates the contractor will only be surveying federal land. The Coast Guard owns a 60-foot-by-60-foot plot around the lighthouse, as opposed to the park encompassing that plot. Oak Bluffs highway superintendent Richard Combra previously said he thought the plot was smaller, 40 by 40 feet. His department mows the grass at Telegraph Hill Park. Combra referred questions about the lighthouse to Oak Bluffs parks and recreation commissioner Antone Lima.
Lima said most of what he and his fellow commissioners know has come from the museum.
“We’d definitely like to get the public park open to the public,” he said. “But until we know it’s safe, we won’t be doing that.”
A contract obtained by The Times shows Renova Environmental Services, LLC, a New Jersey environmental firm, was retained by the Coast Guard at a cost of $81,640 to conduct an environmental site investigation with findings and recommendations.
Kelly Giles, project manager for the investigation, confirmed the scope of the investigation.
“It’s limited to the property that’s owned by the government,” she said. Giles said Renova Environmental Services has done “quite a few” jobs for the Coast Guard, and “lighthouses in particular.”
Giles said the investigation was to “determine the extent of lead contamination on the property.” She declined to provide more detail, and referred further questions to the Coast Guard.
Tests in 2007 indicate lead concentrations are highest close to the lighthouse. Samples taken at that time from six feet away from the lighthouse showed lower concentrations than samples taken closer. Six-foot distant samples ranged from 149 mg/kg to 1949 mg/kg. The report suggests concentrations would decrease the further out from the source of paint (the lighthouse). However, other Coast Guard buildings that may have been painted previously existed on the property, some of which may have stood partially or entirely on the land now comprising Telegraph Hill Park. As part of the the Gay Head Lighthouse Relocation Project, lead-laced soil was remediated. Richard Pomroy of Pomroy Associates, project manager for the lighthouse move, said the soil lead came from lighthouse paint and a long-gone ancillary structure.
Lead is poisonous to everyone, but the heavy metal is particularly toxic to young children, and can cause permanent brain damage.
“Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioural disorders,” the World Health Organization’s website states. “At lower levels of exposure that cause no obvious symptoms lead is now known to produce a spectrum of injury across multiple body systems. In particular lead can affect children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioural changes such as reduced attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment.”
Soil-borne lead exposure can occur in several ways.
“Children can be exposed to lead in soil by touching, breathing, or playing in lead-contaminated soil,” the Centers for Disease Control website states. “Lead-contaminated soil particles can also be brought inside as lead dust, or on shoes, clothing, or pets. Young children tend to put their hands, which may be contaminated with lead dust from soil, into their mouths.”
It’s unclear if Oak Bluffs plans to conduct its own testing to determine what levels of lead exist in the park.
Town administrator Robert Whritenour, who is expected to depart for a job in Yarmouth, previously told The Times he expects the Coast Guard to clean up the whole place. Whritenour didn’t return a call seeking comment.
“We’d definitely like to get the park open to the public,” longtime Oak Bluffs conservation commission member Joan Hughes said. “But until we know it’s safe, we won’t be doing that.”
“The net out for me,” Oak Bluffs selectman Brian Packish said, “is, are you going to clean it up, and is it going to test clean?”
Updated with information from the Coast Guard and town officials as well as information on the harmful effects of lead.