Thursday, June 21, 2001

Hazardous-waste experts helped clean mercury
contamination in a Halawa housing complex in
March. The same contractors will clean a
contaminated pump house in Halawa.

Halawa mercury
cleanup begins

Responsibility for the
pump house still has
not been resolved

By Lisa Asato

The state today is to start cleaning the abandoned pump house where mercury was found and taken to a Halawa housing complex, causing its shutdown three months ago.

At best the cost of the cleanup would be less than $20,000, said Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health, but the total cost depends on what workers find.

Gill said the state Health Department and Pacific Environmental Corp., the contractors that cleaned the Puuwai Momi housing complex following the March 12 contamination, will clean the pump house and surrounding area.

"If all goes well, we'll be done in a week," he said.

He said a lack of action by the state agencies that own and operate the land where the mercury was found prompted the Health Department to take charge of the cleanup. The Halawa parcel, near Richardson Field, is owned by the Department of Land and Natural Resources and operated by the Defense Department.

Because the former Navy parcel was deeded to the state in 1962, several federal and state agencies are involved as responsible parties. But it remains unclear exactly who is to foot the bill for the cleanup and who may be subject to penalties stemming from hazardous-waste laws.

By law the Army Corps of Engineers is required to clean up formerly used defense sites, said Maj. Charles Anthony, Hawaii Defense Department spokesman.

Carroll Cox, president of EnviroWatch Inc., said he welcomes the cleanup. But he warned that the public should know the contamination, which "caused the disruption of approximately 1,100 peoples' lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost property," could have been avoided if the Army Corps of Engineers had dealt with the mercury spill after last year's discovery.

Gill said the Army Corps assessed the site in August and determined that mercury had been spilled, but the corps "neither reported the spill nor took any action to clean it up."

Whether that means the corps is responsible for the spill or subject to fines will be left for lawyers to decide, he said.

"My job is to assure public health and make sure the mercury gets cleaned up," Gill said.

Any mercury and contaminated material will be shipped in drums to a mainland hazardous-waste disposal facility.

The Navy estimated that the machinery in the pump house could have contained as much as 1.5 gallons of mercury. Gill said, "How much of that has been removed over the years, how much remains inside or spilled somewhere else, we don't know and probably never will."

But the problems do not stop there. "There are abandoned underground fuel tanks (at the site)," Gill said. "My crew will not be touching those."

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