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Plastic-covered Hawaiian Island Moves Toward Possible Superfund Designation
SAN FRANCISCO— In response to a petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to take a historic first step toward classifying a tiny Hawaiian coral island, Tern Island, as a Superfund site because of hazards posed by plastic pollution. The Center’s petition requested that the agency conduct a preliminary assessment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and a portion of the enormous Pacific Garbage Patch within U.S. waters.
The EPA’s Superfund program is designed to identify and clean up the country’s most polluted areas. This is the first time the agency has considered using Superfund to address an area contaminated by plastic; it will be conducting studies on Tern Island, a remote airstrip and one of the largest tropical seabird rookeries in the world. In particular, the agency will focus on the toxicity threats posed by plastic debris to wildlife that inhabits the area.
“It’s great that the EPA is going to investigate the dangers to wildlife from plastic pollution,” said Emily Jeffers, a Center attorney. “Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and seabirds beyond number are hurt and killed by the thousands of pounds of waste littering this beautiful island. We have to take action now.”
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, whose reefs and shores are deluged by plastic debris, have long been a haven for marine wildlife. Designated Papahanaumokuakea National Monument in 2006, this 1,200-mile chain of scattered islands and atolls is home to more than 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The Pacific Garbage Patch is a swirling mass of litter in the Pacific Ocean, larger than the state of Texas.
Plastic debris kills or injures thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and turtles every year. Some wildlife are entangled and drowned; others are strangled or suffer from lacerations and infection. Still others starve after consuming plastic because it creates false feelings of satiation. Plastic is also a source of toxic chemicals that, after being consumed by fish and birds, move up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals. These toxins can be passed to humans who eat fish like swordfish and tuna.
“The EPA is taking a very important first step toward assessing the nature and extent of plastic pollution on Tern Island,” said Jeffers. “We hope that what it learns from this investigation will lead to cleanup of the islands — and ultimately to policies that reduce the flow of garbage into our oceans.”