Despite snow, lighthouse test holes dug

Results will determine whether drilling is done.

A hole in the walkway to the lighthouse that's flagged for lead testing.

Technicians from Renova Environmental Services, LLC, a New Jersey contractor for the U.S. Coast Guard, have begun digging test holes to survey soils around East Chop Lighthouse for lead contamination.

As The Times previously reported, high levels of lead are already known to be in the ground around the lighthouse, based on prior testing. The Coast Guard disclosed the existence of lead contamination at the lighthouse to The Times in 2019. Prior to that, museum and local officials say, they weren’t made aware such a condition existed there. 

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has a leasehold agreement (technically a license agreement) with the Coast Guard for use of the lighthouse, which is a popular tourist attraction. The additional testing by Renova, an $81,640 job, is geared toward providing a clearer picture of where lead is in the soils in anticipation of a cleanup of the site. 

Tuesday morning, four technicians in bright safety gear were at work digging holes and flagging them. A hammer and spike were used to break through the soil’s frozen crust enough for shovel work. A member of the Coast Guard was also onsite, but it was unclear in what role. The official declined comment. The soil lead under investigation is linked to paint used on the tower. The Coast Guard is only testing the 60-foot by 60-foot federal parcel the lighthouse sits on,and the walkway that leads from East Chop Drive to the lighthouse. Property owned by the town of Oak Bluffs encompasses the federal property. Oak Bluffs is waiting to see what comes of the environmental testing, according to parks and recreation commission chair Amy Billings. “We will see what the report says,” Billings said of the report Renova is expected to generate following its work. 

Reports and existing paperwork, such as environmental site assessments from the Coast Guard and its contractors, didn’t come to the town easily, she noted. “It took us a while to get the documents to begin with,” she said. 

Originally Renova planned to bring in a drilling rig to conduct deep testing, but that might not happen, according to Petty Officer Amanda Wyrick, a Coast Guard spokesperson. “[I]f no lead is detected between the surface and about [3 feet] deep, there is no need for them to continue and drill deeper,” Wyrick emailed. 

Since 2019, the museum and the town have kept the area cordoned by using mesh fencing erected during a renovation project that year, and by screwing shut the picket gate beyond that mesh fencing. The closure of the area, which in addition to its tourist appeal was a popular site for weddings, came after The Times published news of the contamination and after ICC Commonwealth (formerly International Chimney Corp.), contractor for the restoration work, conducted informal lead soils tests that revealed lead contamination. 

It’s unclear how secure the site is. On Feb. 6, two people could be seen strolling on the lighthouse grounds. No warnings are posted about the lead contamination. Christine Todd, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Business Association, said she believes the area should be posted with signs. 

Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the likelihood of affixing signs. Health agent Meegan Lancaster said the subject “has not been brought to the board formally,” but she anticipates putting it on the next meeting agenda.