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Residents at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe who are suing a developer over a possible connection between health problems and pesticide contamination got a big boost from the state Health Department last month.
The state wants the developer to test for soil contamination in anticipation of turning the matter over to the federal agency that assesses toxic waste sites.
Ohana Military Communities, a subsidiary of Forest City Enterprises Inc., took over housing on the base in 2006 and demolished some residences and constructed others over several years.
The developer discovered the soil contained high levels of organochlorine pesticides left over from termite treatments, and completed a state-approved pesticide management plan.
But the Health Department said it found out last year that Forest City never tested the soil to ensure that it was safe after completing the remediation program, according to a letter the department sent to the developer Sept. 15.
A group of current and former residents filed a class-action lawsuit last year asking Forest City to investigate the risks to military families from chemical contamination.
The Health Department has been aware of residents’ concerns for several years, and last month “strongly recommended” in the letter that Forest City test the soil for pesticides. The department said it needs the data because it plans to ask the federal U.S. Agency for Toxic and Substances Disease Registry to investigate whether there are potential public health risks.
“My husband was deployed to the war in Afghanistan while his family was poisoned at home. I would like to know, at any level, how this was and continues to be justified.”
Involving the federal agency is an unusual step for the Health Department, but remedial project manager Eric Sadoyama says the department no longer has any environmental epidemiologists on staff due to budget cuts.
He said the state department was prompted to involve the federal agency after receiving a letter from Dr. Walter Chun containing information about the incidence of cancer and other health problems in the community.
Chun is an environmental hazard consultant who formerly worked for Metcalf Construction Co., which built housing on the base prior to Forest City
His letter described the results of a survey of hundreds of former and current base residents, which he said was prompted by the sudden death of an 8-year-old boy from liver failure.
“My husband was deployed to the war in Afghanistan while his family was poisoned at home,” wrote one survey respondent whose name was withheld. “I would like to know, at any level, how this was and continues to be justified.”
The department still hasn’t received a response from the developer, Sadoyama said, and it’s unclear what would happen if Forest City chooses not to test the soil. Sadoyama said the department believes it has the legal authority to require soil testing and remediation, but the developer has disagreed with that assertion in the past.
Forest City declined to comment on whether or not the company plans to test the soil, and issued a statement maintaining that the homes on the base are safe.
“Forest City has and will continue to work with the Department of Health,” a company spokeswoman said in an email. “However, they are unable to provide additional details due to the pending litigation.”
The Health Department request for testing pleased Kaneohe residents who have waited for years for acknowledgement from the state that there may be health hazards in their community.
As recently as last year, Sadoyama sent a letter to Chun saying it’s “extremely improbable that residents’ health concerns are linked to exposure to potential low-level residual pesticides in soil,” and contending that there was no justification for a formal health study.
Cara Barber, a former base resident and lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, said that she was elated when she heard of the Health Department’s request.
“Hallelujah!” she laughed during a telephone interview from her home in Florida.
Still, Barber wonders whether the Health Department’s request will be effective. She said she and other residents have asked previously for Forest City to test the soil for pesticides and the developer has declined.
“Our question is, is there any authority that can force them to comply?” she asked. “It would seem to me that especially on sites where there’s known contamination that oversight would be necessary to ensure the protection of human health.”
Barber moved to the base in 2006 when her husband was stationed in Hawaii.
Soon after the family moved in, her 1-year-old daughter started developing respiratory problems, Barber said, adding she experienced headaches and nausea herself.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2013 that Barber came across an old article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that said the base had soil contaminated with high levels of chlordane, a pesticide associated with nervous system problems.
That’s when she was introduced to Chun.
Chun told Civil Beat that high concentrations of pesticides had been applied to the foundation of homes to protect them from termites, but when the homes were demolished and the neighborhood was redeveloped, the contaminated soil was exposed.
Forest City confirmed through tests that the soil was contaminated and embarked on a pesticide management plan, approved by the Health Department, that involved moving and burying the contaminated dirt.
“It would seem to me that especially on sites where there’s known contamination that oversight would be necessary to ensure the protection of human health.” — Cara Barber
The plan permitted higher levels of carcinogenic pesticides than the EPA generally recommends to remain in the surface soil because it was assumed military families would not live longer than six years on base.
After meeting more families who experienced health problems, Barber decided to join a class-action lawsuit against Forest City to force the developer to investigate the issue and warn past and present residents of the risk of pesticide exposure.
She said that when she started living at the base, Forest City gave her a community handbook that said it was safe for kids to play outside. The developer has since issued information sheets that indicate children shouldn’t play near the foundations of homes.
The Health Department’s Sadoyama said whether the agency has the authority to require the developer to test the soil is a “gray area.”
That authority was a point of contention about a decade ago during discussions among the Health Department, the U.S. Defense Department and developers Forest City and Lend Lease when the military was in the midst of privatizing housing in Kaneohe and at Hickam Air Force Base near Pearl Harbor, Sadoyama said.
At that time, the developers maintained the Health Department had no jurisdiction over their pesticide procedures, Sadoyama said.
“Rather than get into some sort of big legal battle with them over that question, we tried to work cooperatively with the Department of Defense and with their housing contractors,” said Sadoyama.
“The question was, because there was this uncertain legal authority, how hard would we push? We wanted them to take action, we wanted them to manage their soils appropriately,” Sadoyama said. “The degree to which we could demand that they take additional measures such as post-construction soil sampling — that was an item that we got some pushback on because clearly that’s something that’s going to be a significant additional cost.”
Ultimately, the state didn’t require the developers to test the soil to figure out whether their pesticide management efforts has actually worked.
“We approved the plans because they looked like they were going to be doing the appropriate things,” Sadoyama said.
At Hickam, it was different. In 2009, the Health Department received a complaint regarding Lend Lease’s treatment of contaminated dirt near homes on the Air Force base and requested more information from the developer.
The developer tested the soil and discovered contaminated dirt in people’s yards, prompting a lengthy Health Department investigation and a new soil remediation program.
In Kanoehe, it wasn’t until about the time that the lawsuit was filed last year that the department asked Forest City for soil sampling data and discovered none existed.
“We had hoped that they were doing post-construction soil sampling and we found that they had not been,” Sadoyama said. “They didn’t see that it was necessary.”
The lack of data has fueled concerns among residents who have experienced health problems since moving to the base.
Forest City has repeatedly insisted that the homes are safe, but residents like Melissa Jones wonder how the company can say that when the soil hasn’t been tested.
Jones has been living at the base with her three children for nearly six years, and she said one of them developed asthma.
“To me, this is a breakthrough. It seems like we’re finally being heard and taken seriously.” — Rachel Streater
“There’s no way we would have moved here had we known (about the pesticides),” she said.
Rachel Streater feels the same way. “It’s really frustrating to me,” she said. “I wish I could have been given the chance to choose.”
The 37-year-old lived on the base from 2007 to 2009 and used to grow fruit in her yard. When she moved to the base, she was already diabetic.
Streater said she has since developed problems with her immune system and nervous system, including an allergy to insulin.
She’s divorced and living in Texas, where she’s trying to find work to pay off her hospital bills.
Despite her health problems, she’s pleased about the Health Department’s testing request and its potential to help future Kaneohe residents.
“To me, this is a breakthrough,” Streater said. “It seems like we’re finally being heard and taken seriously.”
Read the lawsuit below:
Read the letters to and from DOH below: