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By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Feb. 21) - High levels of toxic chemicals were found in fish and soil samples taken from Cocos Lagoon, but environmental and health officials say residents are not in immediate danger and that the situation is "not harmful enough" to impose a fishing ban.

The samples, taken by the Coast Guard as part of its worldwide environmental investigations, showed levels of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs up to 265 times higher than allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"At this point, because this is just a preliminary finding, it is prudent to be conservative. It’s appropriate to advise people to limit or avoid consumption of fish from the affected area," Guam EPA administrator Randy Sablan said at Monday’s press conference.

He said available information, so far, indicate that "the situation is not harmful enough" to close Cocos Lagoon to fishing.

PCBs are known carcinogens that have been banned for decades. They are chemical compounds once used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment. They were found in everything from lighting fixtures to hydraulic oils before a 1977 ban in the United States.

The Coast Guard research conducted late last year showed that 11 of the 12 fish tissue samples contained PCB concentrations ranging from 0.066 to 5.3 mg/kg or up to 265 higher than the 0.02 mg/kg level recommended by the U.S. EPA.

The PCB contamination in Cocos Lagoon is suspected to have come from the former Coast Guard Long Range Navigation or LORAN station, which operated on Cocos Island from 1944 to 1963.

During its environmental investigation, the Coast Guard discovered components from LORAN station, including PCB-containing transformers and capacitors in the waters around Cocos Island.

Capt. William Marhoffer of the Coast Guard said the components have since been removed and "nothing is left" in the area.

The Coast Guard’s investigation, Marhoffer said, "is not a new initiative. We have been going around the world to survey, looking for what we now know as possible environmental contamination."

"We’ve identified funding and prepare a statement of work, which we’ve shared with Guam EPA to go ahead and contract a second more extensive round of sampling that will delineate the areas affected and better quantify the level of contamination so that relevant experts can identify the appropriate remediation technique and any human risks that are posed," Marhoffer said.

Sablan said the decontamination work will be done by "whoever is responsible."

February 22, 2006

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