Updated March 24
Tuesday morning, the Oak Bluffs board of health delved into lead contamination at the East Chop Lighthouse, and came away mulling whether the town should conduct its own soil tests, and whether the town can force the U.S. Coast Guard to clean up any lead pollution that may be in the ground at Telegraph Hill Park. The board also expressed the desire to put up signs that indicate a lead danger is present in the vicinity of the lighthouse.
Two members of the board stated they were taken unawares by pollution at the lighthouse, a federally owned structure on a small plot, and potential pollution at the town park that surrounds the lighthouse.
“Everybody understands that exposure to lead or any heavy metal is not good for humans and is particularly bad for children,” board member Jim Butterick said. Butterick said he was “just shocked” many years went by since the last Coast Guard tests showed lead pollution, and yet the area has remained in use by the public, including his family. “How did this not come to our attention before?” Butterick asked.
Chair William White said he’d been on the board longer than anyone he knew of, and “never heard anything about” lead contamination. “This is the first time that I’ve even heard anything about it,” he said.
The Times revealed East Chop Lighthouse had lead-contaminated soils in 2019. In 2020, the Times reported informal testing by a museum contractor found lead in the soil to such an extent that the contractor recommended the museum close the lighthouse. In January, The Times revealed the lead pollution at the lighthouse was “significantly” above EPA standards. In early February, The Times broke news that a Coast Guard environmental contractor was engaged in further testing the lighthouse site for lead contamination.
In late February, the board of health held a cursory discussion on contamination at the lighthouse. During the meeting, health board members joked about lead paint, and health agent Meegan Lancaster said she saw no need to post warning signs, and downplayed the potential threat lead paint posed at the lighthouse because it was in the ground.
On Tuesday, Butterick said he was perturbed by a Times editorial critical of the board and Lancaster, and vowed to send a letter defending the board and the health agent. That letter arrived by email within minutes of the discussion, signed by all three members of the board.
During the meeting, board member Tom Zinno was contrite. “I want to take one step back and apologize to everybody for the storm that my humor has brought up,” Zinno said. “I was using irony, which I tend to do, meaning the opposite of what I said to start that conversation when only the board was on there with me — who’s very familiar with my humor.”
Zinno said he agreed with Butterick about the gravity of the pollution: “It’s a very serious topic.”
Amy Billings, chair of the Oak Bluffs parks and recreation commission, who sat in on the meeting, told the board she saw value in the town conducting its own tests to determine if the park is contaminated. She also said it would be prudent to get results from such testing to the Coast Guard quickly, in hopes the federal agency can be convinced to clean up the park along with its own 60-foot by 60-foot plot.
“I mean, we’re pretty sure they’re going to find lead,” Billings said. “Doesn’t it make sense to be ready, and if the government has to hire somebody then we get in on that?”
“Definitely,” Zinno said.
“I don’t have a great deal of confidence that the little town of Oak Bluffs is going to have an awful lot of impact on the U.S. Coast Guard,” Butterick said. “If the town is going to do testing, it’s going to have to be after a lawyer letter … This is not going to be easy to get the Coast Guard to do this, and even if the town does testing, the Coast Guard is still going to be very reluctant to come in and take care of this and do the remediation.”
The Coast Guard was unable to immediately provide responses to inquiries about East Chop because the officer in charge of that information was temporarily out of the office.
Lancaster said lead remediation for soil is “very different” than traditional lead remediation. “Just the planting of grass to keep it bound in the soil can be sufficient,” she said. She added soil can be carted in to dilute the lead-tainted soil. “Depending on the concentration and the depth, there are a lot of pretty easy remediation tactics that can be embarked upon.”
Lancaster’s opinion dovetails with the Coast Guard’s stance on West Chop — that despite high levels of lead in the soil there, the grounds weren’t hazardous because grass covering the soil was sufficient to hedge against risk. The stance may be drawn from a 2014 analysis and report by Rhode Island Analytical, a firm that did some West Chop testing. The firm’s report states in part, “As long as covering remains in place, the soil will be considered lead-safe.” By covering, the firm wrote it meant “sufficient grass ground cover.”
Zinno told the board he understood the entrance had been sealed before, but somehow got unsealed. Recently, he said, the Oak Bluffs Highway Department secured the entrance. Times photographs taken on March 18 and March 23 show two unpainted picket fence slats screwed across the gate to the lighthouse and park. Along the picket fence, “keep out” signs were posted.
Butterick advocated for signs that went further, and indicated the area was “dangerous to your health.” He said he thought it was important to draw public attention to the pollution in the hopes of gaining momentum on solutions.
“One of the things that would get the public’s attention is if we post signs up there and say the board of health is closing that area because of lead danger,” Butterick said. “You know people will start asking questions.”
Updated with additional details about the meeting.