March 18, 2003 – Crucians discontented with the V.I. government's inaction on environmental issues turned out en masse at a meeting Monday night to voice their concerns to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials.
More than a hundred people crowded the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service building for a chance to talk about the laundry list of environmental ills locally, including concerns about air and water pollution, wastewater treatment, solid waste and commercial fishing issues.
EPA's Region 2 administrator, Jane Kenny, said the purpose of the meeting was to make the agency more aware of the public's environmental concerns. It was Kenny's first trip to St. Croix since her presidential appointment in 2001.
Concerns about the Public Works Department's failure to meet deadlines in cleaning up the Anguilla landfill and subsequent fires burning inside the facility were raised as the hearing kicked off. DPW recently was fined $11,000 for missing one of those deadlines.
"The landfills, both on St. Croix and St. Thomas, have been one of the biggest nightmares residents of the islands have ever encountered," EPA's Region 2 asbestos contact in Puerto Rico, Francisco Claudio, said. "Not operating the landfill properly has caused situations where there is open burning."
Claudio said the EPA does test the air quality on the South Shore near the landfill. EPA's V.I. coordinator, Jim Casey, said the results are within the allowable toxicity levels, and the only major health risks are within the immediate vicinity of the fires.
But that comment was met with disbelief by some in the audience. "All I'm reading about is 'acceptable levels,'" cancer activist Debbie Christopher said. "But you've been in the monitoring stage forever, and our cancer rates are only getting higher. Something else has to be checked." She said cancer rates on St. Croix are four times what they should be.
Karl Christopher asked whether emissions information about Hovensa was available for the last 30 years and whether there were any St. Croix air-quality studies to compare the present situation with what it was before the oil refinery began operating on the island.
Kenny said the records do not go back that far but told Christopher that improvements have been made over the years.
Casey said that the acceptable levels for pollutants "are much, much lower than anything 30 years ago," and that emissions have decreased by as much as 50 percent for some compounds.
But while EPA regulates and monitors environmental standards, it does not have the authority to come into the territory and remedy its environmental woes, outside of assessing financial penalties or withholding funding.
"The federal government feels the program is best run at the state level; we delegate authority to the state programs," Casey said. He added that while the EPA does not relinquish the responsibility of oversight, it doesn't want the local government to "feel disenfranchised."
Kelly Gloger, senior associate of Sustainable Systems and Design International, urged EPA officials to become more active in the Virgin Islands. "I hope you have come here with open eyes and creative minds in terms of how to approach problems," she said. "Your reputation is a little tarnished currently in the territory in terms of taking care of your responsibilities."
Kenny stressed that the EPA will take the information presented Monday night and use it to develop strategies for dealing with those issues within the parameters of the agency's oversight. "You do share in the responsibility to make sure your government is working for you," she said.
Sen. Louis Hill, who chairs the Senate Environmental Planning and Protection Committee, said he was impressed by the turnout and called the EPA visit "encouraging." He also said he would like to see the local government utilize its technical expertise and go after more and bigger federal grants. Attending the hearing, he said, "sensitizes me to the issues concerning the people and gives me some sort of direction for the future."
To submit comments to the EPA or obtain more information, call Casey at 714-2333 or 714-0521.
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