Kure Atoll, a speck of land in a federally protected marine area nearly 1,400 miles northwest of Honolulu, provides a safe haven for seabirds, rare fish, endangered seals and coral reefs.
And now, at least until a salvage operation can occur, it’s also home to an 8,000-pound excavator, which is leaking fuel, a roll of chain-link fencing, hunks of metal and broken glass that fell into the water when the boat carrying it capsized a quarter-mile offshore.
Two of the nine people aboard the 33-foot landing craft were injured in the Sept. 2 incident, which remains under investigation. They were treated and released by a doctor at nearby Midway Atoll.
The accident offers a rare look at some of the work being done inside Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — a nearly 600,000-square-mile area around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that’s off-limits to anyone without a special permit for conservation, education, research or cultural purposes.
President Barack Obama quadrupled the monument’s size in late August, making it the world’s largest protected marine area. The day before the vessel capsized he flew to nearby Midway Atoll to highlight the monument’s importance in protecting natural resources, fighting climate change and preserving heritage sites, which include sunken ships at Kure.
Employees of Element Environmental, a Hawaii environmental and engineering firm contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were working on a nearly $1.5 million project at Kure Atoll that involved digging up 400 to 600 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated soil from an old U.S. Coast Guard dump site near the shoreline and reburying it in a more secure spot near the center of Green Island, the atoll’s largest land mass at six miles wide.
Kure, like other places in the Pacific, is facing rising sea levels due to climate change, which spurred the need to move the toxic soil before it potentially became submerged and polluted the area, according to Maria Carnivale, state co-manager of the monument.
The Coast Guard had used Kure from 1960 to 1992 as a LORAN communication station, setting up a landfill for scrap metals on Green Island.
Those metals contained PCB, short for polychlorinated biphenyl, which was commonly used as an insulator in electrical equipment until its environmental hazards became better known. The U.S. banned it in 1979.
Element Enviornmental’s crew was leaving Green Island after finishing work reburying the polluted soil when around 5:15 p.m., Sept. 2, the landing craft’s door reportedly opened and caused it to capsize, according to Tom Findtner, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineer’s Alaska District, which hired the firm for the job. The Corp provided oversight of the work on behalf of the Coast Guard, he said.
Officers from the U.S. Coast Guard and state Department of Land and Natural Resources responded to the scene of the capsized boat where they worked to take crew members to shore and clean up the mess. They removed a 1,200-yard spool of fishing line that was strewn along the lagoon floor, a pack of fishing hooks, batteries and an emergency medical supply kit that was floating in the water, according to a DLNR staff report.
Another landing craft was able to right the capsized vessel the next day and tow it to shore, state and federal officials said, but now they are are concerned the excavator is leaking diesel fuel and hydraulic fluid, which are known to harm the environment, and that the metals in the water will cause damaging algal blooms if not removed soon.
Carnivale said the fuel spill is limited to three gallons of gas, a “very minimal amount” in the larger scheme.
Matt Neil, an environmental scientist at Element Environmental, said he was unable to discuss the boat incident as the firm is still under contract to complete the project.
DLNR staff have indicated concerns with Element Environmental’s previously permitted work. Carnivale said attorneys are reviewing an incident involving one of the firm’s staff members from a separate incident, but could not elaborate since it was an ongoing personnel issue.
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved a permit two weeks ago for a salvage operation that’s been tentatively scheduled for Oct. 20, Findtner said.
“Field reports indicate that there may have been a lack of compliance both with the state rules and PMNM best management practices on this most recent access trip by Element Environmental,” the permit application for the salvage operation says. “The state is looking into the matters noted.”
Carnivale underscored the complexities and coordination involved in doing work at Kure and elsewhere in Papahanaumokuakea, which is jointly managed by federal and state officials.
“It took a village to conduct the initial remediation, and it takes a village when it doesn’t go according to plan,” she said. “The logistics are really tricky.”
Aside from the state land board’s OK, the cleanup work needs approval from the Coast Guard, Army Corp of Engineers, Element Environmental and a professional salvaging company
Element Environmental’s 33-foot landing craft was hardly the first vessel to run into trouble at Kure Atoll, which has proven to be a dangerous location for mariners unfamiliar with its shallow waters and reefs.
And while officials agree the excavator that fell off its boat needs to be removed from the water, there are ships that have so far been left in place — not the least of which is the 155-foot USS Saginaw.
The Saginaw was used to protect American citizens from pirates in the Pacific during the mid-19th century and guard shipments along the western coast of the United States during the American Civil War.
After the ship helped with dredging work at Midway Atoll in 1870, it went to Kure Atoll to rescue any shipwrecked sailors that might be there but it hit the reef and ran aground instead. An anchor, canons and other parts of the vessel were discovered in 2003.
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