SAN FRANCISCO, California, November 19, 2013 (ENS) - A petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity has succeeded in persuading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess tiny Tern Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to see if it should be declared a Superfund site.
The EPA's Superfund program is designed to identify and clean up the country's most polluted areas. This is the first time in its 33 year history that the agency has considered using the Superfund to address an area contaminated by plastic.
The agency will be assess the extent of plastic contamination on Tern Island, a remote airstrip and one of the largest tropical seabird rookeries in the world.
"The EPA intends to evaluate potential and observed releases of hazardous substances from Tern Island, including hazardous substances that absorb to plastic marine debris in the surrounding surface water," said EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld, who heads the agency's Region 9, the Pacific Southwest.
The agency will focus on the toxicity threats posed by plastic debris to wildlife living in the area.
"It's great that the EPA is going to investigate the dangers to wildlife from plastic pollution," said Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"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," said Jeffers. "We have to take action now."
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, whose reefs and shores are blanketed by plastic debris, had long been a haven for marine wildlife.
Designated as a National Monument by President George W. Bush in 2006, this 1,200-mile chain of scattered islands and atolls is inhabited by more than 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
Tern Island, with an area of 26.014 acres, has a landing strip and permanent houses for a small number of people. It is maintained as a field station in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But Tern Island is swept by the Pacific Garbage Patch, 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.
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."