A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
From more than 100 sites, territory residents regularly dump their waste into the surrounding ocean, threatening fragile coral beds and potentially putting at risk the fish populations that feed and shelter there.
“Coral are very sensitive to everything,” said Anita Nibbs from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Environmental Protection.
Besides natural dangers, coral reefs are increasingly exposed to human-made stresses. Excess sediment makes the water turbid and can create too much shade, interfering with vital sunlight and in extreme cases can even smother coral. Run-off carrying fertilizers and pesticides can poison them. Excess nutrients, in the form of treated or untreated human waste, can promote the growth of algae, destroying the normal symbiotic balance of algae and corals and turning them into competitors in the reef ecosystem.
As environmental program manager for the department’s water quality management program, Nibbs is on the front line of government efforts to protect coral and other sea life, most notably by controlling discharges directly or indirectly into the sea.
She estimated about 130 agencies and businesses discharge into territorial waters; these include hotels, condominiums, power facilities and government sewage treatment plants.
“The department monitors water quality quarterly,” she said. It has also partnered with the University of the Virgin Islands the last two years in ongoing research of water and coral quality.
“We are doing a better job at monitoring,” Nibbs said, adding that while no big changes have been evident, “we want to stay on top of things.”
In March, the department held public hearings on proposed changes to its water quality standards governing effluent. In keeping with federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) mandates, the local government proposes to lower the acceptable temperature of treated water, and to ensure that it is less turbid.
The goal is to have the new standards in place by the end of the fiscal year, September 2014, Nibbs said.
Areas with coral reefs should have water temperatures of 25 to 29 degrees Celsius, or 77 to 84.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and the new rules provide that discharged water may be no more than one Celsius degree higher than the surrounding sea temperature. As for turbidity, or the cloudiness of the water, a level of three NTUs (nephelometric turbidity units) had generally been acceptable in the past, but the new regulations would drop that figure to just one NTU, which is roughly comparable to the amount of turbidity deemed acceptable in public drinking water in many U.S. jurisdictions.
“We received comments (on the proposed new regulations) from a few people in the community,” Nibbs said. “EPA also had comments, which is not uncommon. … We’re in the process of drafting the responsiveness summary,” which will outline those concerns, she said.
However, Nibbs said she does not anticipate any major revisions to the proposal. Nor does she think the new standards will be onerous for people operating discharge services.
“We’re not trying to close anyone down,” she said.
Some operators already meet the proposed new standards, Nibbs said. Others may be exempt from them because of the condition of the water into which they discharge effluent. If the seawater naturally exceeds the temperature and/or turbidity standards, the effluent may too. So a business can request a waiver, based on proof of the natural water quality.
It may also request a variance in the time needed to comply with the regulations, assuming it shows good faith efforts to come into compliance timely.
Once DPNR completes revisions to its proposal, it will be reviewed for legal sufficiency by the Attorney General’s Office and then sent to the governor for signature.