Inspectors return home after arsenic tests, will return later

International health and environment inspectors have returned to their Jamaica headquarters after testing several people and taking ground and water samples in efforts to assess local arsenic contamination in Frank Sound.

The teams will return in the coming weeks, establishing base levels for further measurement and possible remediation of tainted soil and groundwater.

The two-member team from the Pan American Health Organization tested several people at the site on Wednesday and Thursday, including Charles Powell, owner of the 14.5-acre farm in question.

“They tested some people, although I was not one of them, but my dad was,” said Chad Powell, Charles’s son, “and some of the neighbors, I think.”

The results are unlikely to be known for another month. Charles Grant, director general of the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences, citing client-contractor confidentiality, declined to comment on his probe of the soil, saying only “we’re looking at the whole environment, including the people.”

“When I get full authorization from the client, I will share all the scientific details,” Mr. Grant said, referring to Cayman’s Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose, who, with recently retired Medical Officer of Health Kiran Kumar, brought in the overseas teams.

In the wake of the testing, Mr. Rose said, “The simple truth is we do not know all the facts. Hence we have brought in the experts with access to the best resources.”

He said government was trying to be as forthcoming as possible and hoped to avoid alarm: “We have demonstrated that no one is attempting to hide anything. I do hope that a sense of panic will not be created, and that the facts are borne out.”

Some have worried about the 850 students at nearby Clifton Hunter High School, described by farm owner Charles Powell as “500 feet” from his farm, and adjoining land of his brother Tony Powell, who said he had lost three cows and two horses in the past two months, although he declined to link the deaths to groundwater contamination.

Christen Suckoo, acting deputy chief officer in the Ministry of Education, was circumspect about threats to the school, pointing to a statement on Thursday from the Public Health Department: “While preliminary laboratory investigations are ongoing, public health officials are operating at a heightened state of awareness and vigilance.

“The Public Health Department will continue to closely collaborate with overseas partners to determine if any public health response may be warranted,” the statement read.

Mr. Suckoo cautioned that preliminary conclusions were unwarranted: “We will await further information from them about the process.”

Premier and Minister of Health Alden McLaughlin said, “All protocols in conducting an investigation of this nature are being observed. We are thankful to our international partners PAHO and ICENS for their assistance. The health and safety of our population is paramount.”

The problem dates to Hurricane Ivan in 2004, when government imported pressure-treated plywood for post-storm repairs. Officials halted its use, however, after learning the material been had been treated with anti-fungal chromate copper arsenate, a form of arsenic, which can cause cancer of the lungs, bladder, skin, kidney, prostate and nasal passages, as well as nerve damage, dizziness and numbness.

Charles Powell permitted government contractor MC Restoration to use his property as part of hurricane recovery, mulching and burning tons of mixed waste: vegetation, baled metal, lumber from old homes and the treated plywood. Mr. Powell said he and government agreed the company would remove all materials.

Contractors spread the ash across the property, storing as much as 250,000 cubic yards of material in a small quarry.

“They gave me a document saying they would restore the land, but they left it alone for two years,” Mr. Powell said. “I called the governor’s office. He sent me to the Cabinet Secretary. They said they would make a decision and write to me.

“It goes on and on, and they said that I’m only trying to get money out of the government. The government contractor was supposed to fix the hazardous material and most of it is still in a pit up there,” Mr. Powell said.

The Water Authority, responsible for groundwater, tested the soil in early 2006, and found chromium, lead and benzene. Director Gelia Frederick-van Genderen summarized the results in a letter to Cabinet Secretary Orrett Connor. Investigators had found toxic ash both above and below ground and other hazardous wastes. Pieces of pressure-treated wood were ubiquitous. “The authority’s test … confirmed that ash and mulch could pose long-term environmental problems …,” the letter continued.

Director of the Department of Environmental Health Roydell Carter was closely involved in both the post-Ivan cleanup and current efforts to remediate the damage.

“We knew it was contaminated, and we removed a lot of soil,” he said, noting that 4,000 cubic yards of ash were stored in a sealed pit in the George Town Landfill. “So we did do something about it.”

That 2006 effort, however, came long after burning and mulching was complete. Follow-up samples were taken in 2007, but little else was done for another six years.

When Mr. Rose replaced a retiring Mr. Connor in 2013, he met Mr. Powell. “It was upon my request that a fresh set of tests were conducted as part of a complete review of the matter,” he said.

The subsequent Water Authority report, done in May 2014 but not released until January 2015, found “buried debris mixed with ash, baled metals and household hazardous waste had not been removed from the site … To the authority’s knowledge and, as confirmed by the property owner, the buried debris mixed with ash, buried on the northern part of the site remains in place.”

“This was all done in ignorance,” Mr. Rose said. “They have been dealing with this for 10 years.”

“We are now working as a team,” Mr. Carter said. “Samples will be taken to establish a base level. We need to alleviate the concerns of people. We have brought in [PAHO and ICENS] to provide independent verification, and they are taking the samples so there is no cover-up or concern that someone is trying to hide something.”