The U.S. Coast Guard plans to remove 230 tons of soil from around East Chop Light as part of a lead remediation project. One area of town-owned land adjacent to the lighthouse returned a very high finding of 16,600 ppm (parts per million) — a concentration more closely associated with soils near industrial facilities, one soil specialist told The Times. Dawn Pettinelli of the University of Connecticut Soil Laboratory described such a high lead level as “not common,” though not as high as levels that might be found at a shooting range.
The reading is shown on an updated map of contamination at East Chop Light that the Coast Guard released to The Times Tuesday, following a records request. The map shows the 16,600 ppm finding, the highest concentration of lead found in Telegraph Hill Park, which is the property of the town of Oak Bluffs.
The 16,600 ppm concentration equates to the ground itself being greater than 1 percent lead. The updated map was generated by Renova Environmental Services, a Coast Guard contractor involved in the ongoing process of evaluating lead in the soils around the lighthouse in order to implement a remediation plan.
The Coast Guard owns a 60- by 60-foot parcel on Telegraph Hill. Inside of that parcel sits East Chop Light. Surrounding that parcel is Telegraph Hill Park, public land that has been cordoned off because of the lead pollution. The Coast Guard attributed the lead in the soils around East Chop Light to lead paint formerly applied to the lighthouse. Presently, the Coast Guard plans only to remediate lead it believes originated from the lighthouse, as opposed to lead that may have come from bygone structures that were adjacent to the lighthouse. To that end, it has entered into a license agreement with the town of Oak Bluffs. The agreement permits its contractor to cross over the federal parcel boundary and conduct work on town land.
The Coast Guard plans to remove 230 tons of soil from around the lighthouse and ship it off-Island, according to Lt. Brandon Newman, a spokesman for Coast Guard District 1. The soil will primarily come from inside the federal parcel, but some of it will also come from town-owned parkland, according to Lt. Newman.
That’s at least 6½ semi trailer loads of soil, according to Vineyard excavator John Keene, who estimated a semi with a dump trailer holds about 35 tons of soil. Keene said trailers don’t always get filled to their maximum volume, so it may take more truckloads to move the tonnage.
Lt. Newman said it was his understanding soil loads will likely be transported with a layer of clean topsoil over them to prevent pollution escape. Lt. Newman said the Coast Guard hasn’t ruled out the possibility of using barges to ship soil off-Island, as opposed to ferrying it off via the Steamship Authority.
The excavation work isn’t expected to begin until September. Prior to that, an archaeological survey will take place. Lt. Newman told The Times that Public Archeological Laboratory (PAL) will conduct the survey. Acting Oak Bluffs town administrator Wendy Brough told The Times town counsel is drafting an agreement to permit the Coast Guard to conduct the survey, as the present agreement only covers testing for lead. Brough said she expects the select board to vote on the agreement at its July 13 meeting.
Meanwhile, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which licenses East Chop Light from the Coast Guard, has begun preliminary work on Phase 2 of a lighthouse restoration project. The $259,700 job utilizes Community Preservation funds approved by Oak Bluffs town meeting voters. Phase 2, which won’t be in full swing until the soil remediation is finished, will rebuild the gallery deck of the lighthouse.
The high concentration of lead found on the grounds of Telegraph Hill Park greatly exceeds the EPA action level for lead in soil. The EPA action level for lead in soil is 400 ppm. A Penn State University Extension webpage classifies lead in soil concentration greater than 2,000 ppm as “very high” contamination.
A report previously 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 lighthouse drip line showed lead concentrations of 2,840 ppm and 3,166 ppm, respectively. A more precise breakdown of EPA thresholds for concern and cleanup are 400 ppm for anywhere considered a children’s play area, and 1,200 ppm elsewhere. Soil testing done in 2007 within three feet of the lighthouse showed concentrations of lead between 3,210 and 3,179 ppm for one sample, and between 3,452 and 3,670 ppm 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,” a report states. Upon reviewing that report, Martha’s Vineyard Museum director of operations and business development Katy Fuller previously described the testing data it revealed as “upsetting.” She said it was “concerning” the information had been withheld for so long.
The present test results didn’t show as many high concentrations of lead around the lighthouse. One 2021 finding east of the lighthouse and within the federal parcel showed 1,620 ppm. This was the highest reading inside the federal parcel.
Though closed now, the lighthouse and park have been popular tourist attractions and wedding venues. The Oak Bluffs board of health ordered signs be posted along the picket fence that divides East Chop Drive from Telegraph Hill Park. The beacon of East Chop Light remains an active aid to navigation, according to Lt. Newman, who noted the Woods Hole Aids to Navigation Unit keeps the beacon in good working order.