In a letter to federal partners dated Tuesday, Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly expressed opposition to the proposed burning of wood debris and waste on St. Croix and St. Thomas, and demanded that any burning be halted until the public has an opportunity to address concerns raised by public health and environmental experts.
“We received through a general alert system today notice that such burning is going to commence soon. However, as you must know, the Legislature of the Virgin Islands has passed Bill 32-0157 banning such activities that make this activity illegal,” the letter said.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp announced Monday that he will not sign the Senate bill banning the burning, and said a permit has been issued to allow FEMA and the Armey Corps of Engineers begin burning.
The Senate passed Bill 32-0157 Dec. 1. Senate President Myron Jackson said if Mapp vetoes te bill he will call for a Senate override vote.
At issue is the disposal of tons of trees and brush blown down by Hurricanes Irma and Maria when those category 5 storms blasted the territory in September.
The federal government will cover the cost of disposal of the debris until March 20. FEMA has suggested burning the debris in an air curtain incinerator as the most efficient way of disposing of the material. The Corps of Engineers would do the actual burning.
But lawmakers and many envinronmental groups have countered that incineration could cause air pollutants that could harm islanders’ health, and that burning the debris would destroy material needed for replacing the nutrients in the islands’ soil. They call instead for chipping and composting the debris.
In her letter Tuesday, O’Reilly said there had been a lack of communication between FEMA and the Corps on the one hand and the public on the other. It’s been a matter of “Trust us, it will be fine,” O’Reilly said.
The senator also expressedconcern that information provided by FEMA to the public is at best incorrect. It describes air curtain incinerators as a “pollution-controlling device.”
O’Reilly said her own research and conversations with experts in the subject indicate incinerators do not control pollution – they generate pollution.
“We have no information about the type of incinerator that will be used (trench or above-ground box,) where they will be located, how many will be in operation, when they will be operating, how they will be monitored, what times they will be operating, and what FEMA and the Corps have done to predict impacts on our community, including the Central High School,” O’Reilly wrote.
Noting that recent news release issued by the Corps indicated the incinerators have been used in other situations, she O’Reilly said “the fact that others have operated these incinerators in the past does not mean that they are safe. There is a considerable difference between burning a small pile of wood in the middle of the forest and burning hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of wood within sight of a school.”
“Given the impacts from burning this waste and the existence of a viable alternative that would not impact the public, and because the law will soon make burning illegal, we insist that you halt any plans to burn wood waste at least until you make public any and all information pertaining to the burn for review and comment,” O’Reilly’s letter concluded.