Wednesday, October 7, 2015         


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Cleanup aims to save 10,000 birds each year

A project to dispose of flaking lead-based paint addresses the untimely deaths of albatross chicks

By Dan Nakaso


Work will begin on Midway Atoll next month to remove lead-based paint that dooms 10,000 Laysan albatross chicks each year to a heartbreaking and apparently painful death.

"It's awful and horrifically tragic to see them die," said Myra Finklestein, an assistant researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has studied the chicks' deformities and deaths for more than a decade.

Midway Atoll, the site of the bloody, World War II naval battle that turned the tide for America in the Pacific, is also the world's key breeding site for the Laysan albatross, a species considered vulnerable to extinction.

"As the paint chips off from buildings and falls on the ground, it falls in the soil and healthy albatross chicks succumb to lead poisoning," said John Klavitter, Midway's deputy wildlife refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency on Monday awarded the first $4.7 million contract to remove lead-based paint from eight of Midway's 95 buildings, seal them with a rubberlike coating and clean the most contaminated soil from Midway's primary island.

Over the next six to seven years, the wildlife service will spend more than $21 million overall to remove more paint chips from contaminated soil and clean 63 additional buildings.

Much of the contaminated soil will be treated with a substance designed to prevent it from being ingested by animals. The soil then will be encased in concrete on Midway, Klavitter said.

But some of the contaminated soil likely will have to be barged to Oahu, he said.

An estimated 10,000 Laysan albatross chicks die on Midway each year from neurological problems and from a related "droopwing" disorder that leaves the chicks unable to fly.

Finkelstein has seen Laysan albatross chicks struggle to lift their heads to receive food from their parents, who "spend all day and through the night trying to coax their chicks to eat," Finkelstein said. "They barely have the strength to lift their heads."

Others die of organ failure "and a multitude of other neurological reasons."

Some chicks afflicted with droopwing develop compound fractures from dragging their disabled wings on the ground, she said.

"Their bones stick out and get filled with maggots," Finkelstein said. "They're certainly not born that way. They develop droopwing after eating contaminated paint flecks on the ground."

An unknown number of Bonin petrel seabird chicks also have died in their burrows on Midway after ingesting contaminated paint chips, Klavitter said.

It's unknown whether other seabirds that breed or nest on Midway — or Midway's abundant sea life — also have suffered lead-based paint damage over the decades, Finkelstein said.

"No one's frankly studied the situation," she said.

The cleanup contract comes at a critical time for the Laysan albatross, said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Japan's March earthquake and tsunami killed an estimated 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks at Midway, representing about 22 percent of this year's chick population, she said. At least 2,000 adults also died when the tsunami washed over the atoll's three low-lying islands, she said.

The wildlife service awarded the first phase of the cleanup contract after the Center for Biological Diversity issued a notice of intent to sue the agency for its failure to clean up lead-based paint on Midway, which the group called a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Endangered Species Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Although Wolf is glad the cleanup will now begin, Wolf said the project is long overdue and tens of thousands of albatross chicks have needlessly died.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Navy have been watching albatross die from a very painful death from lead poisoning for at least three decades," Wolf said. "We're disappointed that it's going to take a minimum of another six to seven years. Meanwhile, albatross are dying, and the problem is only getting worse. There isn't a real justification why it has taken so long."

Some lead-based paint problems were addressed in 2007 when paint was removed from the exteriors of 24 Midway buildings, Klavitter said.

The problem of lead-based paint on Midway dates to the early part of the 20th century, after the Commercial Pacific Cable Co. set up operations on Midway in 1903 and connected San Francisco to Honolulu to Midway to Guam to the Philippines via cable messages.

The company's Midway base enabled President Theodore Roosevelt to send the first "round-the-world" message on July 4, 1903, when he wished "a happy Independence Day to the U.S., its territories and properties."

After the Navy took control of Midway, maintenance on Midway's 95 buildings often left even more lead-based paint on the ground for chicks to eat, "resulting in a mass of droopwings," Finkelstein said.

So she expressed hope that more modern technology will contain contaminated paint flecks during the removal work.

"Considering that very little has happened so far, this is such a great step forward," Finkelstein said. "More harm will come if nothing's done."

"Once lead mortalities are stopped — if they are stopped— then definitely we'll see the Laysan albatross population grow," she added.

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