Professor Phillip S. Lobel studies Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System

Professor Phillip Lobel

Deadly chemical agents and diverse coral reefs share an unusual home on the barren island in the Pacific Ocean.

Approximately 800 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, the island is an active military installation and a National Wildlife Refuge managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, protecting 13 species of nesting seabirds.

In 1991 the United States Department of Defense opened the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) for use as a demilitarization and incineration project to destroy 6.6 percent of the nation’s military stockpile of various nerve and mustard agents used for building bombs, mines and rockets. In its ten years of operation, the project disposed of over 410,000 obsolete chemical weapons.

That same year, Dr. Phillip S. Lobel, a professor of biology with the Boston University Marine Program and Dr. Betty Anne Schreiber, an Ornithologist with the National Museum of Natural History, began studying the project’s effects on the surrounding birds and marine life.

Concerned with the JACADS incinerator operation, human disturbance of birds, and the increased dumping of waste in the surrounding water, Lobel and Schreiber conducted an coral reef and avian ecological studies to monitor the stability and health of the atoll ecosystem.

In 2001, JACADS completed its mission. Results from 20 years of monitoring the island’s ecosystem showed Lobel and Schreiber that the project did not adversely affect surrounding wildlife. In fact, population size of all the area seabird species increased with no negative effects on the bird populations during the incineration process.

The resulting marine data also revealed that concentrations of metals such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and mercury, were low; the length and weight of male domino damselfishand their feeding behavior did not change; and fishes showed no evidence of lesions, tumors or other abnormalities.

Today, the atoll’s coral reef ecosystem remains in pristine condition with an abundance of fish rarely seen among other reefs in the Pacific. The military cleaned-up and departed the atoll in 2003. It is now included in the newly designated “Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument” established by President George W. Bush on January 6, 2009.

Information for this story was taken from Professor Lobel’s book: Marine Life of Johnston Atoll, Central Pacific Ocean.

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