Wednesday, June 6, 2001

A scared and tired Rosa Ayres, 3, waits with her mom, Rissie
Ayres, to go into the temporary shelter that was set up at Halawa
District Park. They were among those evacuated from
Puuwai Momi after a mercury contamination.

Mercury cleanup
still not done after
3 months

An environmental group asks
police to investigate the spill

By Mary Adamski

Nearly three months after a mercury spill forced the evacuation of a Halawa public housing complex, state and federal officials have yet to start cleaning up the source of the potentially toxic liquid metal.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which had planned to clear the abandoned pump house of contaminants, has ruled itself out of the project because it does not meet federal guidelines for preparing a "formerly used defense site" for use by another agency.

"It's fair to say that no responsible party has stepped forward to accept full responsibility," said Gary Gill, state Department of Health deputy director for environmental health. He said it may take years of legal action to determine which government agency will foot the bill, but the health department will proceed with the job and seek reimbursement later.

When that will happen, he could not say.

"It's not as simple as walking in and sweeping and closing the door behind," Gill said. 

Meanwhile, an environmentalist organization wants someone to take the blame for failing to remove the mercury before children carried as much as 1 1/2 gallons of the liquid metal to the Puuwai Momi complex and other locations.

Once discovered on March 12, contamination of apartments and grounds led to a quarantine of the housing, cleaning of 71 units, and removal of personal property. Gill said the cost has climbed to $400,000, "and that doesn't include the bill for shipping barrels of contaminated goods to a hazardous waste landfill at a cost of $500 per barrel."

EnviroWatch Inc. officials Carroll Cox and Joe Ryan met with Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue Monday asking police to investigate. "We believe that an intentional and knowing false reporting of the mercury spill ... has occurred," Cox wrote in a letter presented to Donohue.

Donohue said the police "are going to look at it. We're going to see if there was a case of false reporting. It is preliminary right now."

He said a police report was filed in March and one boy was arrested for burglary for allegedly entering the pump house property.

Last week Cox asked the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate because, he said, state and federal officials failed to comply with the Superfund Act, which requires agencies to report toxic spills.

Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Doug MaKitten yesterday acknowledged that a survey team that entered the pump house near Richardson Field last summer saw "some minor mercury spatters on the floor, less than an ounce, I have been told. I saw pictures, and it looked like paint splattering. What we consider a federal reportable quantity would be a pound ... "

Gill said: "To what extent which agency is responsible is a legal question: the Navy, which arguably placed the mercury in the pump house in the equipment; the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, who owned and maintained the pump house for decades; and the state Department of Defense that took title of the pump house in the early part of this year and holds title now."

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