Feds to spend $21M cleaning up lead on Midway Island

WASHINGTON — After tens of thousands of lead-related deaths, Laysan albatross chicks on Midway Atoll may have a better survival rate.

American Bird Conservancy — the nation’s leading bird conservation organization — on Friday applauded the start of the first phase of a $21 million effort to remove lead-based paint from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

This action is the largest step to date in solving a decades-old problem that has resulted in the death of as many as 130,000 Laysan albatross chicks since jurisdiction of the island was transferred to the Department of the Interior from the Navy in 1996.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge hosts nearly one million breeding Laysan albatrosses every year, making it the world’s largest colony. This spectacle is marred by the deaths of thousands of birds each year from lead poisoning. Curious albatross chicks eat the lead-based paint that is peeling off the outside of 95 buildings on the island.

 The birds soon develop a lead poisoning condition known as droopwing, whereby they are unable to lift their developing wings off the ground. As many as 10,000 chicks have died each year as a result of the toxic effects of lead, which include starvation and dehydration.

“We are thrilled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is dedicating significant funding to put a stop to the horrific wildlife deaths that Midway has witnessed,” said George Wallace, vice president for Oceans and Islands at ABC. “This is an outcome we have been working towards for over ten years.”

Though groups such as ABC that have been calling for the clean-up, as well as FWS, all agree that while the process for implementing corrective action was advancing, a Notice of Intent to File a Lawsuit initiated by the Center for Biological Diversity accelerated the decision.

In July 2010, ABC and two Hawaiian groups — the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i Audubon Society, renewed repeated calls to Congress to provide funding to clean up the deadly lead paint-contaminated buildings on Midway.

The clean-up will consist of abatement of lead-based paint from the exterior of 95 buildings (26 of which have already been done), consultation regarding the demolition of certain structures, excavation of soils around the buildings that contains high levels of lead contamination, and disposal of contaminated soil into an on-site containment unit. The excavated areas will be backfilled with clean material and the site will be restored. FWS believes these actions will mitigate the environmental health threat posed by contact with lead contaminated soils and ingestion of lead-based paint chips.

A work crew of 10 -15 people is anticipated. Removal activities will primarily be implemented between July and October when few birds are present on Midway. The first phase will begin late this summer.

The entire project is expected to take five or six years, with reviews of the effectiveness of the project scheduled for every five years thereafter for an undetermined period of time. The cleanup plan prioritizes sites with the highest potential to affect wildlife to be addressed first.

The lead poisoning deaths in the 2010-2011 breeding season were compounded by two severe winter storms and the March tsunami, which killed more than 110,000 Laysan and Black-footed albatross chicks — about 22 percent of this year’s albatross production. At least 2,000 adults were also killed.

FWS initially experimented with trying to prevent the chicks from eating the paint by covering the ground around the buildings in plastic and fencing off areas. However, this proved ineffective, because birds became entangled in the material as it degraded, and birds adjacent to fenced areas continued to exhibit lead poisoning.

The area encompassing Midway and its waters was included in President George Bush’s designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as Papanaumokukea Marine National Monument in 2006.

American Bird Conservancy is a not-for-profit membership organization which conserves native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.

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