Josephine Roller of the Coral Bay Garden Center gets choked up when she talks about the piles of vegetative debris on the Coral Bay ball field, but not because they remind her of the devastation of Hurricane Irma.
The piles of natural vegetative debris have been reduced to wood chips that can be turned into mulch or compost, and Roller wants them for her 17-acre farm.
“It is precious material,” she said. “It hurts me to see this resource wasted.”
Roller said she became alarmed in late April when the piles of wood chips began disappearing from Coral Bay as part of an effort to clear the ball field by May 15, the deadline set by the Government of the Virgin Islands, FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE,) and Ceres, the trucking company contracted to remove storm-related debris from St. John.
“They’ve been taking the wood chips away, and I don’t know where,” said Roller. “In October, I told Governor Mapp that the Garden Center could take all the wood chips and distribute it to the people. I spoke to him and to [Delegate to Congress] Stacey Plaskett. I thought everything would be settled.”
The matter has not been settled, and Rollers’ recent attempts to reach officials from Ceres and government have been futile, she said.
What to do with the estimated 750,000 cubic yards of vegetative debris throughout the territory has been a source of controversy. Mapp requested that the USACE burn the debris, but public opposition in November led the Senate to pass legislation to “ban the burn.” The governor vetoed the legislation, but his veto was overridden. Since then, the governor has decreed that all storm-related debris be transported off island.
The natural wood debris in Coral Bay has been processed twice through chippers and is suitable for turning into mulch or compost, according to a report made at an April 26 meeting of the St. John Long Term Recovery Team.
Managing these piles of wood chips does require some expertise, according to Roller, explaining that she understood why officials might be reluctant to open the debris storage site to the public.
“You’d have termites everywhere if you just take the chips. It would be a nightmare. You have to compost it by adding nitrogen, which I have,” she said.
Roller said it is necessary to sprinkle the wood chips with water, something she can easily do because she has a pond on her property. She worries that the wood chips could become a fire hazard if they are transported someplace where there is no source of water.
Roller, whose Josephine’s Greens regularly appear on the menus of St. John restaurants, said her farm is minutes away from the ball field where the wood chips are being removed.
“Why take this material to the transfer station at Susannaberg, and then ship it off island?” she asked.
Dave Minner, who directs the Gifft Hill School’s sustainable farming program, said he, too, would also be happy to take properly processed wood chips off the territory’s hands.
“If you keep the piles less than 12 feet tall, and put them in windrows, it’s not a fire hazard.”
Minner was able to use wood chipped by the Westin Resort to replenish the soil at the Gifft Hill School following the hurricanes last fall.
“The Westin did all their own chipping. Their crew brought it up and spread it. It saved them time and money compared to bringing it to St. Thomas.”
Minner estimates the total value of the donated wood chips, which are being used as mulch and compost, had a value of $92,000.
“I can’t understand why we can’t take it and use it. It’s a no-brainer,” he said.
So far these farmers’ pleas have fallen on deaf ears. A spokesperson for FEMA referred questions to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lisa Parker, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said she had discussed the issue with FEMA, but the matter is in the hands of the territorial government.
Attempts to reach officials from the Department of Public Works and the Department of Agriculture were unsuccessful.
Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds.