Lead. Throughout America’s history, it’s been used in paint, batteries, gasoline and even water pipes. Today, lead contamination in one of the oldest Oakland, Calif., neighborhoods is being neutralized not by more chemicals or hauling away tons of dirt but by mixing ground fish bone into the soil.
The bone comes from Alaskan pollock, a white fish used in fish sticks and imitation crab meat. It is also one of the world’s largest fisheries in the United States with annual catches averaging more than two billion pounds per year. The ground bones, left over after the meat is harvested, contains phosphate that binds with the lead in the soil to become non-toxic pyromorphite, a mineral the human body can’t absorb.
The Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Team is supporting the Environmental Protection Agency as the safety managers for the West Oakland Lead Project – South Prescott Neighborhood, a community-based project that recently completed the milestone of cleaning more than 100 residential properties.
The PST is one of three teams that make up the National Strike Force, a vital national asset comprised of a unique, highly trained cadre of Coast Guard professionals who maintain and rapidly deploy with specialized equipment and incident management skills.
“We rely heavily on the Pacific Strike Team in EPA Region 9,” said Steve Calanog, the EPA’s federal on-scene coordinator for the West Oakland project. “Knowing faces, capabilities and having good working relationships with our partners like the Coast Guard are an important part of safely getting the job done at sites like West Oakland.”
In this neighborhood, the average lead contamination levels in the soil are twice the federal limit of 400 parts per million.
Two historic practices, the use of exterior lead paint in the first buildings raised during the late 1800s, and lead-additive gasoline exhaust, which caused lead to be deposited around the highly trafficked freeways nearby, are likely significant contributing sources for lead contamination in the project area.
PST members make hourly rounds throughout the neighborhood, which vary from abandoned lots to family backyards and range in size from two square feet to more than 5,000 square feet.
On their rounds, they use precise equipment to measure how many microscopic fish bone particles are in every million of particles of air. From this data, the fish bone, water and soil mixture is adjusted to ensure the ground fish bone is being absorbed into the soil. They also oversee all aspects of site safety including contractor oversight and checking fire extinguishers, eye wash stations and personal protective equipment.
These functions are just a fraction of the capabilities strike teams can leverage to support federal on-scene coordinator and operational commanders around the country. Strike team members deploy at a moment’s notice to respond to hazards resulting from oil discharges, hazardous materials releases, weapons of mass destruction events and other emergencies on behalf of the American public.
Last week alone, the Pacific Strike Team had seven other active EPA cases across the Pacific Rim, from removing dangerous cylinders filled with anhydrous ammonia, so the American Samoan Airport can safely expand, to sampling water from Comins Lake, N.V., in the Steptoe Wildlife Refuge to test for potential mercury contamination.
Since its establishment in 1973, the Pacific Strike Team and the other teams that comprise the National Strike Force have supported Coast Guard and EPA cases like these across the country. They can respond to incidents with tractor trailers full of hazardous material and oil spill response equipment, safety and protective gear and sensitive detection equipment to a site they support. Yet, for all the capabilities they bring, there is still a focus on the communities where they work.
“Because this site was inside a community, it made safety transparency that much more important,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Blaine Nibley, a reserve response member who is currently working at the West Oakland site. “It was also a great opportunity to work with the community and see a project change a neighborhood. It’s giving them a lead-free environment for their children to play and places to grow gardens and vegetables.”
Following the lead neutralization, residents are given landscaping options from installing weathered granite to planting new healthy grass. Vegetable boxes for urban gardening can also be installed. This work is often completed by local Oakland residents that have been employed as part of the clean up team.
There are still roughly 50 residential properties to be cleaned before the project is complete later this year. The strike team will continue to support the EPA during this project, ensuring a safer environment for the community of West Oakland.