April 5, 2002 – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers investigators say they are almost ready to present a report of their 10 years of research into concerns about chemical weapons on and in the waters off Water Island.
The fourth-largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands was turned over to the local government by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1996. But up to two years before the transfer there were lingering concerns about the remains of chemical weapons left over from a storage site set up on the island by the Army in 1948.
Over the last decade, federal authorities have been inspecting the portion of the island where some leftover munitions were found. The Army Corps of Engineers, the agency in charge of cleaning up the area, has kept details about its operations to itself, prompting concerns from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But in discreet comments made recently to one V.I. government official, those authorities are hinting that all is well on Water Island.
Robert Bridgers is the project manager for the Army Corps. He said his investigative team has spent much of the last 10 years searching archives for information related to the operations conducted at Fort Segarra on Water Island. "I have a team from St. Louis Corps of Engineers doing an updated search of the Water Island documents," he said. "This team needed to make a site visit for the first time and take photographs."
Fort Segarra is one of an estimated 10,000 former defense sites in the U.S. states and territories. The Water Island site was used to test the effectiveness of tropical storage containers holding chemical munitions. At the end of a two-day inspection made several days ago, Bridgers paid a call on St. Thomas/Water Island Administrator Louis Hill. According to Hill, Bridgers' remarks during that visit were reassuring.
"They just want to make sure there aren't any munitions or contaminations from that time," Hill said of the federal investigators.
The investigation began in 1992 as an apparent follow-up to an operation conducted in the mid-1980s to remove two M/70-78-series bombs left over from the Army's San Jose Project. A security fence was set up around the site where the bombs were discovered. As the team searched its Water Island archives, they found evidence of other leftover munitions. In 1994, investigators said they had identified three locations south of Flamingo Bay that warranted further study.
It was around that time that word of the discovery of a third bomb was shared internally in a report called the Fort Segarra Management Plan. There were concerns about the presence of cyanogen chloride, a potent form of cyanide first used by the British and French military during World War I. For the next two years, according to the report, engineers pondered what to do.
The report said the team sought some possible solutions with the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, a private firm in Maryland used by the Army to research and develop chemical defense systems. Those consultations were taking place as recently as 1999.
Meanwhile, local EPA authorities were wondering why the Corps of Engineers was taking so long to disclose its Water Island findings. According to Jim Casey, EPA coordinator for the Virgin Islands, agency officials finally wrote the Army Corps, saying they would put the Water Island site on a national priority cleanup list unless investigators shared the details of their findings.
"We don't have any active role in the reclamation of the area," Casey said of the EPA. "The agency has an oversight role in issues involving government facilities. They have to copy the agency on all the plans." He added, "The EPA is interested in why there have not been any definitive plans submitted for so long after Water Island was turned over to the Virgin Islands."
Since then, Casey said, there has been contact with the investigation team, which has provided details about steps taken between 1999 and 2001 to address the concerns brought on by the discovery made in Flamingo Bay. Casey said he hopes to discuss the matter further during an upcoming trip to EPA Region II headquarters in New York.
Queries were submitted to Bridgers and to a representative of the Corps of Engineers in San Juan, P.R., about information contained in the management plan. To date, no responses have been received. After the investigators' most recent visit to Water Island, in late March, Bridgers said his team had made "some new discoveries." But he declined to provide any details, saying they would be made public when the Army Corps releases its report on Water Island.
The report is expected to be made public by summer. Bridgers said the findings of the 10-year investigation will fill nearly five volumes. He said copies will be given to local government offices and libraries for public review.

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