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Residents Blame Pollutants for Kids' Ailments

August 29, 2004 – Asthma, skin rashes, sickle cell anemia, bacteria, sewer smells, red dust, stomach aches and headaches are just some of the litany of problems residents of Estates Bethlehem, Harvey, Machuchal and Profit told federal officials about Saturday. A similar meeting was held Friday on St. Thomas for Bovoni residents.
Representatives of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Center for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry met with about 20 St. Croix residents, many of whom brought their children as evidence of the areas' toxic effects. Delegate Donna M. Christensen organized the meeting.
The residents, who live in close proximity to Hovensa, the largest petrochemical plant in the U.S., and the former St. Croix Alumina Plant, say the thousands of tons of emissions produced by the companies affect their health. Adding to their woes are emissions from the Anguilla landfill and a sewer line running along the Melvin Evans highway that routinely emits a sulfuric odor. Although the Alumina Plant was closed in January 2001, the company left behind a mountain of red dust, a byproduct of the chemical processing of bauxite, which has plagued residents, blowing into their homes and infiltrating their drinking water.
Cathy Torres, a 30-year-old Estate Harvey resident with five children, ages 2 to 13, pled for relief. "If I don't move one of my children are going to die," she said. Torres said her children all have asthma, her daughter has skin rashes and her oldest son was diagnosed last year with sickle cell.
Torres said the birth of her last child was traumatic. "He was born at 33 weeks," Torres said pointing to her toddler, "The doctors said he was dead inside of me, they gave me a cesarean and brought him back to life." Torres has been asking the V.I. Housing Authority to move her family from the community for several years. She brought as evidence letters from doctors stating that the causes of her children's illnesses stem from the environment. "Nothing is happening, they are ignoring me," Torres said.
Resident, Michelin Henry, held her active toddler on her hip as she addressed the officials. Henry said her four children have bronchitis and asthma and they suffer from stomach aches and skin problems. She showed the panel the top of her toddler's head where her hair was thinning. "She has bacteria from the water," Henry said.
Henry said she uses the cistern water to "save money" and that when the water level is low it "comes out red from the faucet." DPNR has conducted several studies of the areas' water in past years. (See "DPNR: Hydrocarbon Tests Find Cistern Water OK") and (See "DPNR: Don't Use Water In Areas Near Refinery")
At the St. Thomas meeting, residents focused on the effects of the Bovoni landfill. Residents said the toxins from the dump are worsened by the waste products from the nearby concrete and asphalt plants.
Residents are affected with strep throat, sinus problems, headaches, fatigue, various cancers and respiratory problems. One resident told officials that doctors diagnosed brain deterioration in her caused by "metals in her body."
Sonia Nelthropp, Waste Management Authority acting executive director, was present at the St. Thomas meeting. Nelthropp told residents that under Environmental Protection Agency mandate, the landfill has to be closed, but the process is a long one. No Waste Management Authority officials were present at the St Croix meeting.
Representatives of the Disease Registry said they would compile the information gathered at both meetings and return to the territory in September to train V.I. Health Department physicians and nurses in detecting effects of environmental hazards. They urged the communities to report any change in the environment such as smells, smoke, or airborne dust to DPNR.
Upon returning to the territory the team will work with the community by conducting surveys of area ailments, producing a quarterly newsletter to inform residents of the progress of the team, provide toxicological information in lay terms so communities would better equipped to communicate their problems, conduct a public awareness campaign to give residents information on who to go to based on the type of problem they are experiencing and looking into the health effects of the animals in the area.
Christensen said the team would respond to the health concerns of the residents and attempt to link ailments to the environmental emissions. "We need to make a connection to a cause and do prevention," she said. Christensen suggested there may be action taken against the polluters, "sometimes the causer has to pay."
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