April 24, 2007 — UVI scientists and instructors have expressed concern over a large plume of brown water — which extends for over a mile, well past the University of the Virgin Islands and out into Brewers Bay — and what the plume may contain.
As he was overlooking the plume from the dock at the MacLean Center for Marine and Environmental Studies Tuesday morning, diving instructor Stephen Prosterman said, "This is the worst I have ever seen it; not since the (Cyril E. King) airport runway construction in the early 1990s, have I seen it this bad."
Just above the point at which water enters the ocean there sits several hundred yards of dredging spoils (i.e., the material removed by the dredging) from the V.I. Port Authoritys (VIPA) Crown Bay dredging project.
"I am amazed that they would store this stuff right next to the water where it washes directly into the sea," Prosterman said. "It is right next to a lagoon and mangrove area that they say is a protected area."
The spoils sit on VIPA-owned land, between the UVI soccer fields and the airport runway. In an interview several weeks ago, Dale Gregory,VIPAs chief engineer, said that the storing of the spoils was only temporary until it was sufficiently dry enough to be trucked up Raphune Hill to the Bovoni landfill.
However, since the Gregory interview, the situation has changed.
Darlan Brin, VIPA executive director, was quick to respond when he learned of the public's concerns.
In a Wednesday morning interview and tour of the area surrounding the spoils, Brin pointed out the double-silt fences and the swath of grass that lies between the spoils and the outflow. "Those fences stop almost everything, and the grasses act like a filter, so very little leeches out," he said. "I walked the entire area this morning, and I did not see anything."
Brin added, " We have tested the spoils on more than one occasion and there are no heavy metals or anything of that sort."
Brin admitted that there may be minimal leaching of some fine material, but the bulk of the spoils were well-contained. He thought that the plume came from outflows from areas above the airport that were being channeled into the lagoon abutting Brewers Bay.
He added, "I didnt see the plume, but I can tell you the spoils did not contribute to it.
There is really nothing we can do about it. The water has to go somewhere, and this is where it ends up, but the discoloring does not come from the spoils."
Now, due to the high cost of transporting the material to Bovoni, Brin said that the spoils would be leveled and remain at the present site.
Brin indicated that according to the airports master plan, the area is zoned for general aviation activities, but the land is low and must be raised. It will eventually end up as usable land with access by bridge.
"A retaining wall will have to be built," added Brin. "I am not sure when that will take place, but we are not going to move the spoils. We will have to draw up plans. We are going to use the spoils as fill, and other agencies and contractors may end up using some of it as well."
In a Tuesday afternoon phone interview, Jim Casey of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintained that the site was VIPAs responsibility and that the wetland area near the spoils was being correctly managed. According to Casey, there is no toxic material in the dredgings based on analysis.
Casey was adamant that the agency is very interested that all appropriate measures are taken to address public concerns.
BioImpact Inc. of St. Croix performed initial tests on the dredging spoils, but the dredging project has since been expanded to accommodate larger ships and it is unclear if tests were performed on the latest spoils.
Amy Claire Dempsey of BioImpact said Wednesday morning that the problem was not chemical, but turbidity, which is cloudiness of water or other liquids due to the suspension of solids. Turbidity blocks light and is damaging to ecosystems; eventually the material eventually settles on the bottom.
According to Dempsey, the initial tests on the spoils were performed in June of 2000 with additional testing in 2003. All of the tests indicated very low levels of heavy metals, toxins or pollutants.
In an earlier e-mail, Dempsey wrote, "DPNR and Army Corps of Engineers require testing of dredge spoils before they are disposed of. There are standard criteria for which they must be tested. They are tested for total petroleum hydrocarbons, primary pollutant metals and mercury. We conducted the required testing for VIPA. The analysis did not find any contamination of concern."
The Crown Bay dredging project has evolved and expanded since its inception in the early '90s. The site was dredged in stages with the construction of the cruise ship dock and then the additional work required to accommodate large ships like the Queen Mary 2. DPNR and EPA both say that the proper permits were obtained for temporary storage, but as of press time had not responded to the fact that the site was to be the permanent location for the spoils. A waiver for the site was obtained from Coastal Zone Management.
Some Still Not Convinced
"Someone needs to be held accountable for making the decision to put that stuff where they put it with no public hearings or input from neighbors," said Prosterman. "I would have strongly objected. There was no notification. It just happened sort of quickly and before we knew it there was this mountain of silt."
However, according to DPNR spokesman Jamal Nielsen, "No public hearings are needed to approve a permit."
Up until the recent heavy rains, the concerns were for the fine dust that blew across the soccer fields and the runway.Until the plume appeared, UVI scientists had noticed minimal impact on the area but are now withholding judgment until further studies are completed.
Both MacLean Center Director Rick Nemeth and physics professor and ocean researcher Roy Watlington noted there had been no visible damage but expressed concerns about the possibility that industrial waste and heavy metal may be in the spoils.
According to Prosterman, for many years, tin and copper were used in bottom paints, which were designed to slough off and were deposited in the silt on the bottom, where they remain indefinitely. Those materials were outlawed for use in paints during the '90s.
Dempsey concurred and added that contaminants in rain runoffs, which include pesticides and herbicides, take a very long time to break down in the environment.
Prosterman noted that the outflow goes by the Marine Science Center, where they are conducting experiments and holding class, and then flows into Brewer's Bay, a popular public beach.
"Theyve got a big problem, but this is not the answer," says Prosterman. "To try to solve it with no input from the community, from the people it will directly affect, is a huge mistake. This is a local beach and a local college."
He added, "We are in the water every day, and this is seriously impacting the quality of the water in the bay in a negative way, and I think it is directly related to that mountain of silt they piled directly next to the water."
Prosterman loaded his class on boats to take them to clear water. "Even if we wanted to, we could never have class here today. You cant see a thing."
Prosterman readily admitted that any time there is a large freshwater event, like the rains the area just received, he keeps his classes out of the water because it is inundated with all sorts of pollutants, like animal feces and general waste that washes down. He also knows that DPNR normally goes around and tests the water after heavy rains and he will wait for their findings.
However, Prosterman was adamant: "This is exactly what I knew would happen. When they built the runway, we saw the same thing happen. No
w we know how to prevent it, and we know how much damage it can cause."
"All the coral in this bay is dead because of the silt that came from building the runway, and maybe there is nothing we could have done about that. But this is unacceptable. They may own the property and they definitely own the problem, but they dont own the ocean and they are spoiling it for everyone in this area."
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