Rare Birds Seek Refuge Near Toxic Wastes

posted in: December 1991 | 0

Sparkling blue water laps against graveled shores. Waterbirds by the hundreds feed on an abundant supply of insects, larvae and fingerlings. Rising from a stand of mangroves, a broad rainbow spreads its brilliant palette across a slaty sky.

Welcome to the Waiawa unit of the Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. Home to as many as four species of endangered Hawaiian waterbird (stilt, coot, moorhen and duck), the Waiawa unit sits on 24.5 acres of Navy-owned land along the east shore of Pearl Harbor’s Middle Loch, directly adjacent to the site of the abandoned Pearl City Peninsula landfill. A few miles away; on the west shore of West Loch, lies the Honouliuli unit – 36.5 acres that, like the Waiawa unit, also sits entirely within the boundaries of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base.

An Unnatural Setting

The refuge may appear natural. In fact, nearly everything is the result of an artifice. The two units are intensively managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under easement issued by the Navy. The ponds and islands were constructed in 1976 to offset loss of stilt habitat that occurred when the Honolulu airport’s reef runway was built. Water is pumped to the refuge from nearby springs and from Pearl Harbor itself.

Lying under the Pearl City Peninsula landfill, discussed elsewhere in this issue, is a minestrone of poisons of every kind. This has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to be concerned about the possible migration of contaminants to the Waiawa unit. In addition, an 8-inch-diameter Chevron pipeline running along the perimeter of the unit is a constant threat. (In May 1987, a rupture in the pipeline sent about 100,000 gallons of gallons of jet fuel into Waiawa Spring and Pearl Harbor’s Middle Loch. With no one having notified the Fish and Wildlife Service that the spring was contaminated, jet fuel from the contaminated spring was pumped into the Waiawa unit. One of two nesting Hawaiian ducks was killed, as was a Hawaiian stilt, found dead next to a nest of four eggs.)

Poisoned Water

The Service’s concerns about contamination are justified. Even though the Waiawa unit is upslope of the landfill, and therefore believed to be untouchable by in contaminants (which would tend to move downslope), poisons from one or another source are making their way to the refuge and into the animals that inhabit it.

According to the Service’s 1988 report on the refuge, a study in 1986 found phthalate esters (a petroleum-based chemical determined to be a cancer-causing agent by the Environmental Protection Agency) in the underlying groundwater. The report went on to note: “Various unidentified ‘organic compounds’ were found in sediment samples collected in refuge ponds. In addition, phthalate esters were observed in fish tissues collected from refuge ponds. The concentrations of esters was ‘high,’ however no conclusion could be reached regarding the source of the contamination.”

In 1986 and 1987, black-crowned night herons, fish and invertebrates were collected from both refuge units and sampled for the presence of contaminants. The 1988 report stated that “sample analyses showed evidence of selenium, lead, arsenic and PCBs, all at significant levels.”

Volume 2, Number 6 December 1991

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