Arsenic testing under way, doubt cast on poison claim

Researchers from the Pan American Health Organization have taken samples from at least three members of Frank Sound’s Powell family and are scheduling others, while also testing neighbors, plants, cattle and soil for arsenic poisoning.

Charles Powell, owner of the arsenic-contaminated 14.5-acre Frank Sound farm, said Tuesday that so far he and one of his grandchildren had been tested by visiting inspectors from the Pan American Health Organization, while his son Chad Powell said he was to be tested on Wednesday.

“They are still up there,” the elder Mr. Powell said, describing the presence on his farm of rotating teams of inspectors from the Jamaica offices of PAHO and the Kingston-based International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences.

“They tested me, one of my grandchildren, and the neighbors. They will test the others [grandchildren], but they had school, so I’ve been told the doctors from PAHO will do the testing this week,” he said.

Charles Powell has six grandchildren, and said testing would extend to two other children in a nearby rental property.

He said the ICENS inspectors were “going down” into the soil and had already drilled 45 holes, 21 of them in three particular spots where arsenic-infused ash was buried after incineration of chemically treated plywood.

“They are trying to find the main source where it [arsenic] is coming from. Then they will look for how far it’s spread,” he said.

“The plan is to get [tested] all the people living up there, something like 50 of them,” said Chad Powell. “They will also do the soil and the animals. My father has about 15 or 16 cattle.”

Both PAHO and the Ministry of Health declined to answer questions about testing schedules, on-site teams or an agenda for results, although Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose, in charge of the investigation program, said earlier the lab work would take a month to complete.

Meanwhile, former Cabinet Secretary Orrett Connor, head of the Cayman Islands Recovery Operation and post-Hurricane Ivan cleanup effort, disputed many of Charles Powell’s claims of official negligence at the site.

Mr. Connor said Mr. Powell had contracted with CIRO and partner MC Restoration for the 2004 cleanup, volunteering his land for rubbish disposal, accepting $30 per hour as “site manager” and asking to retain much of the mulch and waste product from grinding and incinerating tons of vegetable matter and arsenic-infused plywood used in post-storm repairs.

“There is no other residue up there,” Mr. Connor said. “We supervised them [MC Restoration] and they cleared up.

“There is a lot or swamp up there and still a lot of machinery up there.

“He [Charles Powell] wanted the material to remain on his property, but we said no because the arsenic levels were too high. He thought he could sell the mulch.”

He disputed Charles Powell’s claim that 250,000 cubic yards of ash had been produced, and that 4,000 cubic yards of the ash, moved in 2006 to a sealed pit at the George Town Landfill, was the entire total.

“It’s not true,” Mr. Connor said of the higher figure, pointing out that PAHO and ICENS were “just testing the soil” because no waste remained on-site.

He pointed to other sites where similar grinding, mulching and burning had occurred.

“There was another site in Frank Sound, where the Ironwood development is being put down, and that is owned by the same people who owned MC Restoration.

“There was a site in West Bay, in the Northwest Point area. The owner wrote to us and congratulated us on how we handled the site and leveled it off.

“There is another site on the [East-West Arterial] bypass, and we’ve never had any complaints,” Mr. Connor said.

David and Tom Moffitt, MC Restoration owners and developers of the $360 million Ironwood residence and golf course development, said they tested their land three years or four years ago and found it clean.

The tests “had no relevance to Ironwood whatsoever,” they said through spokeswoman Denise Gower, “but was done for other reasons. It has a clean bill of health.”

Mr. Connor pointed to arsenic as naturally occurring chemical – if in modest quantities.

“Arsenic is naturally forming, and the problem is that no one did any tests before, so no one knew the levels,” he said.

A Ministry of Health official echoed Mr. Connor, underlining the need to await test results: “The Cayman Islands government is still in the investigation process,” said Nancy Barnard, deputy chief officer for policy and planning. “Accordingly, at this point, the media should await the final investigative report which will include findings and recommendations to mitigate any problems, if indeed there are any arising.”