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Planning's Beach Testing Highlights Beach Problems

Nov. 17, 2004 –– The Department of Planning and Natural Resource's newly instituted testing program is turning up contamination problems at various beaches across the territory, but the source of pollution at any particular beach is difficult to pinpoint.
Aaron Hutchins, acting director in the Environmental Protection division at Planning and Natural Resources, and others said that while malfunctioning sewage treatment plants cause some problems, the bulk comes from failing septic systems and agricultural waste. Rain washes the contamination downhill into the sea.
Hutchins said that when it comes to septic tanks, the slopes are steep, the soil is not suitable and residents fail to maintain them.
"You're supposed to pump them out every three to five years," he said.
Megan Shoenfelt, director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, said that roots infiltrate sewage pipes, allowing sewage to leak out on a regular basis. When it rains, that sewage flows downhill.
She said that the current also brings sewage to beaches.
"When I was at Ha'penny a few weeks ago, the beach was nasty," she said, attributing the problem to sewage arriving on the current.
She also said that in busy harbors, boats that empty their holding tanks directly into the ocean contribute to the problem.
Richard Doumeng, manager at Bolongo Bay Beach Club on St. Thomas, said the bay in front of his resort experienced bacterial problems. He puts the blame squarely on development in a flood plain inland of his hotel.
"They strip mined it, they flattened it and then the government let them put septic tanks on it," Doumeng complained.
He said homes built uphill of the hotel were done without retaining walls and have improper drainage, both of which allow water and its contaminants to flow downhill to Bolongo Bay.
He said during heavy rains a river flows from that area across his resort and to the ocean.
Doumeng called on the government to install mitigation methods to stop the water from destroying his parking lot and his restaurant as well as contaminating Bolongo Bay.
He said that no new construction has occurred at Bolongo in the last 20 years, and the hotel's sewage treatment plant is functioning fine, so he is not causing the contamination problem.
Planning is sampling water at 43 beaches across the territory. Hutchins said they were chosen because they are popular swimming beaches not under the control of a federal agency such as the National Park Service.
While Francis Bay, among the eight on St. John is on the list, it is a V.I. National Park beach. Hutchins agreed that this was so and was at a loss to explain its inclusion. Oppenheimer Beach is also on the list, but, while it is owned by the local government, it too falls within the national park.
Cruz Bay Beach is also listed, but people seldom, if ever, swim at this harbor that sees heavy marine traffic.
Hutchins stressed that when Planning sends out an advisory that a certain beach has a problem, the agency is not closing the beach but rather advising swimmers that the water is contaminated.
Planning spokesman Jamal Nielsen said that since the program began in July, the department issued about 10 to 15 advisories.
"More problems occur when we have rain," he said.
He said that no problems were found anywhere in the territory during July and August.
St. Croix's list of 20 beaches includes the popular Cramer's Park, Frederiksted Beach, Cane Bay, Davis Bay, and Protestant Cay.
The 15 beaches on the St. Thomas list include the popular Magens Bay as well as other much-used beaches like Coki Point, Bolongo Bay, Lindbergh Bay, and Bolongo Bay.
Planning tests the beaches weekly. When it fails to meet a certain standard, it is retested within 24 hours. That standard is "104 enterococci colony-forming units per 100 milliliters" of seawater. If it doesn't meet the standard the second time, the public is notified. When the contamination level drops below that standard, the public is notified that the beach is no longer on advisory status.
"Our objective is to give as much information out to the public as possible," Hutchins said.
He said a Web site is in the works that will give the current contamination status for the 43 beaches as well as their history.
The program is funded through a $300,000 per year grant that comes under the National Beach Act.
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