State and federal officials say they will finally move forward with the clean up of highly toxic PCBs that have been present for decades near homes and schools on the west side of Oahu.

The state Department of Health and the U.S. Coast Guard have been working together to organize a clean up of the chemical pollution in a portion of an 84-acre vacant lot partly owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands as well as the Coast Guard in Maili.

Coast Guard officials said $3.3 million has been allocated for the cleanup, which is expected to begin in June.

A town hall meeting is planned for Thursday evening in Maili to update residents on the project.

Right now, a residential neighborhood and Kamehameha Schools Community Learning Center are adjacent to the property.

“Given the close proximity of the houses that were built and the potential for the trespassing they’ve been very very negligent in my opinion,” environmental activist Carroll Cox said.

The 84-acre property is owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and U.S. Coast Guard.

Carroll Cox

The property is part of a former Voice of America radio transmitter site that was used during World War II. The land was later taken over by the Coast Guard and a 5-acre portion of the land was transferred to the state to construct a homeless transitional shelter.

But from 1944 to 1971, a portion of the lot had electrical transformers on concrete slabs which left toxic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the ground.

PCBs were manufactured from 1929 until the United States banned manufacturing in the 1970s amid concerns that it could have an impact on human and environmental health.

Prior to the ban, the chemical could be found in electrical equipment and industrial solvents.

‘An Alphabet Soup Of Trouble’

Although the contamination was discovered years ago, a recent study by environmental consultant ITerashima Environmental Services found high levels of PCBs in 30 of the areas tested. One sample also contained levels 95 times what is considered safe for residential areas.

High levels of these chemicals can cause respiratory problems and skin lesions, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2008, the Coast Guard built a fence around the property and “no trespassing” signs were posted after sampling revealed contamination in the area.

But in a letter addressed to the Coast Guard, the Department of Health suggested military officials “make the clean up a high priority” and expressed concerns over the potential scattering of contaminated soil to the neighboring homes.

All that is left from the former Voice of America building in Maili is a white slab of foundation.

Carroll Cox

Paul Chong, project manager and environmentalist specialist from the Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office, said a vegetation cap was in place for years prior to the letter.

The vegetation cap covers the entire area and keeps the affected soil from being blown by the wind or storm run off, he said.

Chong also said funding for the clean up was originally received in 2015 but was redirected to a “more critical site” related to the endangerment of sea animals. The funding has since been renewed and clean up efforts will begin once the weather improves, he said.

But Cox said the property should have been cleaned up a long time ago. “It’s PCBs but it’s an alphabet soup of trouble brewing there in that area,” he said.

A town hall meeting organized by Rep. Andria Tupola is scheduled for Thursday to provide up-to-date information on the planned clearing of the land. Health Department and U.S. Coast Guard officials will also be there to answer community member’s questions.

“This is going to be the full disclosure of the plan and that they’re already going to start removing the contaminated area,” Tupola said.

The meeting will be held at the Kamehameha Schools Learning Center at Maili from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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