HONOLULU - A settlement will ensure the continued cleanup of lead-based paint that has killed thousands of Laysan albatross chicks at Midway Atoll, the Center for Biological Diversity said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered into the settlement Monday with the nonprofit conservation organization to clean the paint from federal facilities on the atoll in the Hawaii archipelago, which is the world's key breeding site for the seabirds, considered vulnerable to extinction, the center said.
The center filed a notice of intent to sue in 2010, arguing that the poisonous paint kills as many as 10,000 Laysan albatross chicks each year and also threatens the endangered Laysan duck. Last year, the U.S. government awarded a $4.7 million contract to begin removing the paint.
The threat of a lawsuit spurred the government to look at the issue and begin the cleanup last year, said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Tucson, Ariz.-based center. The settlement requires that the cleanup be completed by 2017 and allows the center or third parties potential access to test for contaminants in the Laysan duck.
"It did result in the release of funds from the Department of Interior to begin the cleanup," Barry Stieglitz, refuge supervisor for the agency's Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said of the notice of intent to sue.
Midway Atoll was used for many decades as a U.S. military base and still has several sources of pollution. The cleanup required by the settlement applies to existing military buildings that shed the lead-based paint chips that are then eaten by albatross chicks.
"The service's agreement to finally clean up this dangerous lead-based paint is an important step toward returning this tiny island to its rightful role as a haven, not a deadly trap, for wildlife," Wolf said. "Midway Atoll provides unparalleled nesting habitat for albatross, which fly thousands of miles over the Pacific Ocean in search of food and return to the atoll to nest each year."
More than 20 species of seabirds use Midway for nesting. The lead-based paint affects mostly the albatross, primarily the Laysan, which are the most numerous and nest closest to the buildings, Stieglitz said.
Since 2005, about 37 of 95 buildings have been cleaned of the paint, Stieglitz said.
Work is limited to when the albatross aren't nesting or are largely away from Midway - during July, August and September.
"The albatross nest is literally everywhere, except on roads and rooftops," Stieglitz said. "The construction season is fairly narrow."
Workers try to lay black mesh around buildings to discourage nesting, in an attempt to lengthen the amount of time that cleanup can occur, but that doesn't always work.
The center noted that it's especially important to protect albatross chicks after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed about 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks at Midway. At least 2,000 adults were also killed by tsunami waves washing over Midway's three low-lying islands.