Feb. 4, 2005 The V.I. gets more than passing grades on the quality of its environment — air, water and land but "we can do better," was the sentiment most often repeated Friday morning at the official release ceremony of the first-ever "State of the Environment Report."
With the greenery surrounding what National Geographic magazine once deemed one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world as a backdrop, and the sound of the roaring surf in the background, members of the Department of Planning and Natural Resource Division of Environmental Protection unveiled the glossy, four-color, 74-page report to representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, V.I. government officials and the public.
"While 55 percent of the nation's population lives within 50 miles of the coast," Aaron Hutchins, director of Environmental Protection, said, "here, 100 percent of our population lives much closer to the coast."
And the coast, Hutchins said, "is a huge part of our identity and contributes significantly to our income as well as the high quality of life we enjoy."
With nearly three million visitors arriving in the territory every year, the environment is the Virgin Islands' most important asset. Those same visitors also contribute to the problem of protecting the environment.
But despite the challenges of the influx of millions of people, rapidly expanding motor vehicle usage, lack of significant groundwater much of which is polluted and expansion of commercial and industrial development, the V.I. has done a good job in most areas except for handling its waste products, the report concludes.
Where the Waste Goes
Virgin Islanders create 10-12 pounds per day of solid waste twice the amount generated by their neighbors on the mainland. The report points out there are no privately owned municipal waste disposal facilities in the territory and only two active landfills, both operated by the Public Works Department, one on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix.
"Both landfill sites present serious environmental safety concerns," the report states. "Each landfill has been cited by the DPNR for noncompliance … and are the subject of enforcement actions by the EPA."
The landfills, Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas and the Anguilla Landfill on St. Croix, are both under federal consent orders to clean up their acts.
To that end, a bill establishing the V.I. Waste Management Authority was signed into law in January 2004. (See "Waste Authority is Now Law To Be Amended").
Notable in the report is that the landfills are totally funded by the V.I. General Fund without benefit of tipping fees that could be charged to waste site users, industry or residents.
Kathleen Callahan, EPA regional administrator, pointed out the very real economic impact the sewage problems have had on St. Croix, where a raw sewage spill caused the Radisson Diamond cruise ship to cancel a call to the economially challenged town of Frederiksted last January.( See St. Croix Source story, "Ship's Visit On, Then Off With Sewage Cited").
The Good News
Callahan was quick to acknowledge the positive aspects of the V.I.'s environmental record, too.
"The quality of your air, land and water is commendable,"she said. "Keep up the good work, but recognize the need for constant vigilance."
She said on the mainland 50 percent of the population lives in areas that don't meet air quality standards, while all standards are met in the V.I.
The report shows the U.S.V.I. to be among the lowest in the nation for toxic air emissions at .9 millions of pounds of toxic air emissions along with Hawaii, Vermont, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming and New Hampshire. The highest is Texas with 84.4 millions of pounds of toxic air emissions. The stateside figures are based on an EPA National Toxic Release Inventory that provides information on toxic release trends for various states. The data for the V.I. is based, according to the report, on "estimates."
A release from EPA in December praising the V.I.'s air quality caused Delegate Donna M. Christensen, who is also a physician, to immediately question the findings. She said public hearings she had held throughout the territory revealed a different picture, one of children suffering from asthma, skin rashes and other damaging affects of air pollution.
Dean Plaskett, DPNR commissioner, said Friday , "We have to do a better job in monitoring the pollution that comes from our industrial facilities, especially on St. Croix." Plaskett said there are plans in the works to create an emission standard in 2005 that will result in better monitoring.
"The state of the environment is generally good," Plaskett said, "but there is a lot of work to be done."
Part of that work falls into the laps of the Legislature, James O'Bryan, St. Thomas island administrator, who stood in for the governor at the ceremony, said.
"I look to the senators to become environmental stewards," by creating regulations that will protect the environment," he said.
O'Bryan mentioned specifically the rezoning of land adjacent to the Bovoni Landfill so that the junked cars and used tires that litter the island can be properly disposed of. ( See St. Thomas Source story "Dead Tires Have No Place to Rest").
O'Bryan also referred to remarks made earlier by Aubrey Nelthropp, president of the Magens Bay Authority, who in his opening remarks thanked Gov. Charles W. Turnbull for finally securing the watershed surrounding Magens Bay as a preserve.
O'Bryan said it was Turnbull's hope to leave a legacy of improving and protecting the environment. He said the governor intended to "make this place safe for residents and visitors and protect the environment," adding "If we fail … we raise the contempt of history."
While praising the beauty of all three islands, saying, "We could easily pick this meeting up and take it to St. John or St. Croix," and find the same beauty that exists at Magens Bay, O' Bryan also said, "We can do better."
In a stark reality check, Friday's audience sat facing the bare brown scar left by a backhoe, which sat idly in the middle of the surrounding lush green landscape, as a reminder of one of the bigger problems facing the territory development. Non-point source pollution, which adversely affects the territory's important marine environment, is often caused by improperly managed construction sites. The DPNR has made strides in raising awareness with the annual V.I. Non-point Source Pollution Conference and related media coverage about the root causes of non-point pollution, the report shows.
Quality of drinking water also did well, according to the report, depending upon the source of the water. With much of the territory's drinking water coming from desalinization process, the challenges are tied to the sewage problems, the report suggests.
Hutchins said he hopes to see the V.I. get the Blue Flag seal of approval "an exclusive eco-label awarded to more than 2,900 beaches and marinas in 29 countries across Europe, South Africa and the Caribbean," according to Blue Flag's Web site.(See www.blueflag.org).
Hutchins said DPNR/DEP is working with the Tourism Department in its pursuit of the designation. The ongoing beach monitoring program developed and implemented by the DEP is part of the division's program to clean up the beaches and secure the Blue Flag approv
"This program acts as a marketing tool to further enhance the territory's status as a premier beach destination, " Hutchins said.
He said people will "soon be able to go online and look at maps of the territory's beaches and get a full history of the beach's water quality as well as its current water quality status."
Plaskett called the report a "base line," and Callahan referred to it as a "tool," saying, "Use the tool."
The report can be found here broken into three parts, due to its size, in a PDF format. If downloaded on a dial-up connect it may take a few minutes to load. Once loaded, you can view the full-sized page by clicking "view" on your computer and then choosing the size format you would like.
State of the Environment Report – Part I
State of the Environment Report – Part II
State of the Environment Report – Part III
A hard copy of the report is available by calling Friday's mistress of ceremonies and environmental educational specialist Kysha Wallace at 774-3320.
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