Old Paint is Killing Rare Birds: Cleaning Up Toxic Lead on Midway Atoll

There is a piece of Midway's past that is haunting today's albatross. Amid the crumbling buildings built by the Commercial Pacific Cable Company at the turn of the last century nest many thousands of Laysan albatross and burrowing Bonin Petrels. But they nest in soil that has been contaminated by decades of lead-based paint, and the exposure causes a neurological disorder called "droopwing" in which the chicks are unable to lift their wings.

This disorder means certain death for the birds. Every year, thousands of the Laysan albatross chicks die from droopwing, and even if they manage to fledge and fly off, the levels of lead in their bodies likely cause an early death later on.

The Environment News Service reported two years ago that 70 of the old buildings "have been responsible for the deaths of as many as 130,000 Laysan albatross chicks since jurisdiction of Midway was transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior in 1996" and that as many as 10,000 chicks a year die from disorders and illness caused from ingesting the lead paint chips.

This is an incredible loss, especially since the Laysan albatross is a threatened species and about 70% of the world's population nests on Midway Atoll.

The same article states, "[S]cientists and managers from the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concluded that by 2060, there may be 190,000 fewer albatrosses due to lead poisoning. By contrast, removing lead-based paint now could increase the albatross population by up to 360,000 by 2060."

Those numbers are convincing, and that's why a reported $20 million budget as been provided to clean up the lead problem, and the massive project has gotten started.

When I visited Midway in March, the first stages of the project were already underway, which was to cover the affected area around the cable buildings with an outdoor fabric to prevent nesting birds from getting at the chips in the soil. This is all that can be done until nesting season ends and work can begin in earnest later in the year.

The project involves some serious soil moving. Bonin Petrels are burrowing birds, and over the years their nesting activity has helped to stir the lead paint chips deep in to the soil -- as far as 15 feet deep. The mitigation effort includes digging out all the soil down to 15 feet, treating it to contain the heavy metals, barreling it and shipping it off as waste. New sand and soil will be brought up from the beaches to fill in the area. It also includes removing lead-based paint from the buildings and repainting them with safe paint so that more lead does not get into the soil.

According to USFWS, "The recommended clean-up proposes to reduce lead levels in the soil to no more than 75 parts per million (ppm). Studies have shown that lead levels in the soil around affected buildings can be as high as 9,300 ppm."

So, if all goes well, eventually the ground will be safe for nesting birds.

The project came after a bit of hubbub from The Center for Biological Diversity. The organization wrote last year, "The announcement came after the Center for Biological Diversity issued a notice of intent to sue the Service and affiliated agencies in 2010 for their failure to remediate the hazardous waste hurting the birds, in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Endangered Species Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Service’s action memorandum authorizes cleanup to begin this month."

While the problem was known for years, nothing was done because of budget issues. Midway is given a budget of somewhere around $5 million a year to pay for everything, from staff to the many projects necessary to restore the habitat and monitor wildlife. This doesn't go very far, and certainly doesn't cover a massive and expensive project like this lead removal project. But when someone says they plan to sue, well, it's an attention-grabber.

The project is still slow-moving. Clean-up is scheduled to take six to seven years (which, let's be realistic, probably means longer). This is not good news for the birds that will continue to nest around the buildings during that time. Doing everything possible to ensure high numbers of nesting Laysan albatross is key to bringing their population back. The tsunami of last year killed an estimated 110,000 Laysan and Black-Footed albatross chicks, which means bumper seasons for new chicks are needed more than ever.

Until the lead paint project is finished, there is still a risk for the birds raised around the old buildings.

If you'd like to take part in an expedition to Midway or other atolls, check out the trips offered by the conservation group Oceanic Society. It's ecotourism at its best!

Old Paint is Killing Rare Birds: Cleaning Up Toxic Lead on Midway Atoll
Decades of lead-based paint chipping off old buildings on Midway are taking a deadly toll on threatened seabirds, but efforts by USFWS will hopefully help.

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