Delegate Questions Whether Air Is Really Clean

Dec. 22, 2004 – The federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a press release Friday titled EPA Determines that all Areas of U.S. Virgin Islands Meet New Fine Particle Air Pollution Standard.
The title alone was enough to upset Delegate Donna M. Christensen. She said Wednesday, "How can you collect information from three monitors and then say ' all areas of the Virgin Islands." She immediately began writing a letter to Kathleen Callahan, acting EPA regional administrator, challenging the report. She said she wanted to know where the monitors were and what exactly was measured. "I want to see the data," she said.
The EPA release stated that the Virgin Islands are meeting "new, more stringent" air quality standards for fine particle matter. According to the release, the fine particles being measured "are 1/30th the size of a human hair and can lodge deeply in the lungs. They have been shown to cause an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 premature deaths, aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions, and contribute to cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and arrhythmia."
"This is truly good news for the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands," said Callahan in the release.
However, the report doesn't convince Christensen that all is well with the air.
Christensen held public hearings in August concerning air quality and heard from people like Cathy Torres, a 30-year-old Estate Harvey resident with five children. Torres said, "If I don't move one of my children is going to die." Torres said her children all have asthma, her daughter has skin rashes and her oldest son was diagnosed last year with Sickle Cell.(See "Residents Blame Pollutants for Kids' Ailments").
Christensen said she had serious reservations that the EPA assessments could be true given the large number of complaints she has received from residents. She said, "I have heard horror stories."
The EPA report was based on data gathered by the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources. The DPNR gathers data weekly and then assimilates it into a quarterly report it forwards to the EPA in New York. The EPA then evaluates the reports. The EPA also periodically sends people to the Virgin Islands to audit the DPNR gathering process.
Dean Plaskett, commissioner of DPNR, pointed out Wednesday that Christensen's activism in this area has already had positive results. He said, after her hearings this summer when complaints were heard by residents on St. Thomas in the Bovoni landfill area about the air, funds for a new air monitoring device in the area have been found. He added that the department is looking to find funding for more monitoring devices for St. Croix. He said the new devices will not only measure particles, but also their chemical make up.
According to Plaskett, Christensen might be misguided in challenging this EPA report. He said, "Fine particles are just one aspect of air pollution."
Christensen said she was aware that the fine particle measurement did not include the "black dust" of which some residents in area of the Water and Power Authorities Richmond plant complained. She also noted that gaseous pollution was also not part of the report.
However, she said, "We need to find out if this is accurate. If it is then we have to find out where the problem is."
She went on to say that this has been an ongoing effort on her part going back to 1997. She said she plans to meet with federal officials from the EPA and also meet with representatives from the Centers of Disease Control and the National Center for Environmental Health after the holidays.
Christensen said that concerns were raised on St. Croix at her hearings about the red dust at the old V.I. Aluminum Company plant as well as black dust from the Water and Power Authority plant.
Plaskett said he believed the black dust was probably "a maintenance problem" for WAPA and his department was looking into it.
The flurry of media attention to the EPA release and Christensen's challenge of it caused Plaskett to issue his own press release late Wednesday afternoon.
In the release he stated, concentrations in both districts were less than 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air well below the national standard of 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air."
He added that chemical analysis on particulate matter collected between June 2003 and September 2004 at a site located near the industrial area of St. Croix was currently under review by the DPNR and the EPA.
V.I. residents will also soon find themselves responsible to help maintain air quality. Plaskett said in his release that the DPNR is in the process of developing a vehicle emissions inspection program for tail pipe emissions that could be implemented in 2006.
The release stated, " Implementation of this program will result in the imposition of requirements on the general public to contribute to reductions in air pollution through proper maintenance of their private vehicles."
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