Waianae-area residents still can’t be certain whether seafood they harvest off their shore is safe from dangerous levels of arsenic and lead. A federal judge has ruled that Army tests of possible contamination have fallen short and advocates for the community say more tests likely will be necessary.
Contractors hired by the U.S. Army to test whether 80 years of military operations had poisoned local residents’ seafood attempted to test seafood including fish, limu, sea cucumbers and octopus without diving into the water to collect specimens, according to an environmental law firm that sued the Army.
But the contractors never left the beach and the testing was inadequate, said David Henkin, an attorney with Earthjustice representing Malama Makua, a local community organization.
Local fishermen volunteered to dive down and get the specimens for the Army, but Henkin said that they weren’t taken up on the offer.
In a court order issued Friday, U.S. District Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled that the Army breached a court-ordered settlement to test marine resources to determine whether military activities at Makua Military Reservation posed a human health risk. While the Army satisfied some of the testing requirements for fish and shellfish it failed in other respects, particularly when it came to limu and other seafood that can only be found in deeper waters.
“By failing to test any ‘other marine resources’ eaten by area residents simply because those resources required the gatherers to dive, something Tetra Tech was not authorized to do, the Army violated the agreement,” wrote Mollway in a 29-page order.
Jim Dubois, an attorney representing the Army said he hadn’t yet read the order and couldn’t comment. An official from Tetra Tech did not immediately return a call for comment.
Makua Beach residents say that they want to know one way or the other whether the seafood they are serving their families is safe, but the lawsuit has dragged on for years and they still don’t have answers.
“What’s really sad is for a community to have to get into federal court and spend over a decade to battle the military,” said Sparky Rodgrigues, president of Malama Makua and a Vietnam veteran. “I went to battle hoping I wouldn’t have to come home to battle.”
Bullets and unexploded ordnance are strewn throughout the Makua Military Reservation where the Army has been doing military exercises since the 1920s. Residents worry that chemicals such as arsenic, lead, chrome and uranium from the artillery could be leaching into the soil and entering the ocean through runoff. Rodrigues said that the chemicals could also be released into the air and absorbed into plants.
The court order supplements an October 2010 ruling in which Mollway also ruled that the Army had failed to adequately test marine resources. While the military found high levels of arsenic in a previous test of seafood, officials didn’t test whether it was inorganic arsenic, and thus highly carcinogenic, or organic, which doesn’t pose a human health risk.
The 2010 ruling also said that the Army violated a separate settlement obligation to complete archeological surveys to determine whether cultural resources could be damaged by stray shells and mortar rounds.
The military has been banned from doing live round firing since 2004 and is unlikely to be able to resume the activities until the testing is complete.
Rodrigues said the military wasn’t being good neighbors “by contaminating the water, food source and environment.”
“The military takes from our community and doesn’t really give back,” said Rodgrigues.
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