Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Hazardous waste experts went floor to floor at the
Puuwai Momi Housing project last month following
reports that children there were handling mercury.

Officials laud
mercury cleanup

Environmental groups are
critical, though, faulting
crew's tactics

By Lisa Asato

The state averted serious public health exposure to mercury at Puuwai Momi Housing complex because of a well-run emergency response, state Department of Health officials told lawmakers yesterday.

"Over time, thousands would've been exposed," said Bruce Anderson, director of the Department of Health. "The response was timely, appropriate, and we were lucky it was identified when it was and dealt with quickly."

Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health, called the response to the March 12 mercury contamination "the most complex action we've ever had to take."

Speaking at a joint session of House and Senate environmental committees, Gill said the response was slowed by a lack of equipment, which had to be brought in from the mainland.

He said the department also was unprepared to answer residents' medical questions at the site, as crews were not medical specialists, but rather cleaners. The department has added a medical advisor who will be available at future emergency responses, he said.

But Lela Hubbard, the head of the Hawaiian rights group Na Koa Ikaika, said after the meeting that the department showed a lack of concern for residents' property.

She said the department, in its haste, indiscriminately disposed of residents' canned goods, blankets, clothes and new shoes.

"These are not the kinds of families that can replace things immediately," she said.

Residents of the Halawa public housing complex were voluntarily evacuated while their apartments were cleaned. The cleanup ended April 6, 26 days after mercury was first reported. The mercury was traced back to an abandoned pump station on land that has changed ownership multiple times over the years but now belongs to the state.

The total cost of the cleanup could reach $750,000 or more, Gill said.

He said the main issue remaining is getting rid of the source of mercury. He said mercury remains in the pump house, which needs to be cleaned and demolished by the responsible parties, namely the state Department of Defense, Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Navy.

Carroll Cox of EnviroWatch Inc. called the briefing a "dog and pony show," adding that the briefing missed the point that mercury should not have been there in the first place.

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