Students at St. Croix Central High School are now entering their second week without class and with no end in sight, due to ongoing complaints of a foul smell. Central High School will remain closed Wednesday, Nov. 20, due to ongoing monitoring on and around the campus, V.I. Department of Education officials in the St. Croix District announced Tuesday.
Classes were dismissed early Nov. 5 due to reports of a smell. The Department of Planning and Natural Resources investigated, found no source on campus for an odor and cleared the school to reopen the following day, according to a release from the Department of Education, last week. But that decision was reversed after smell complaints continued.
According to a press release from Department of Education’s St. Croix District officials, all clean-outs and manholes were inspected on the Central High campus. As a precaution, the Maintenance Division capped exposed PVC clean-outs on the school’s 900 Wing, and a banana grove at the northeast end of the 1000 Wing was uprooted because it was thought the root structure may have caused sewage lines to collapse. Foam was used to seal the manhole cover. An odor knocker is an apparatus used for odor control in manholes.
A private contractor was brought in to thoroughly flush sewer lines on the high school campus and through those at the St. Croix Curriculum Center. Blockages were encountered and unclogged between manholes No. 3 and No. 5. Also, they discovered one manhole did not have an odor knocker. The operation was monitored by the V.I. Waste Management Authority, which deposited a Cree Breeze solution in each manhole to minimize odors from escaping.
But people are still reporting a smell and the school remains closed. There has not been a call to evacuate the surrounding neighborhoods. According to a statement released Tuesday, the Education Department and other agencies have established an “Incident Command System” to deal with the reported smell. While teams of government officials continued to canvas the surrounding communities, including Estate Profit, Clifton Hill and Harvey Project, the V.I. Fire Service’s Hazmat Team and V.I. National Guard’s 23rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team collaborated to conduct monitoring on the school’s campus and in the surrounding communities. Response efforts will continue throughout the evening and resume Wednesday, Nov. 20, according to Education.
Staff at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital and the Department of Health’s Emergency Medical Services are reportedly prepared to support, respond and provide immediate assistance to residents impacted by this smell. Residents with health issues relating to this incident are advised to report to the St. Croix hospital immediately.
This is the latest in a long string of smell-related government closures, frequently of public schools. Central High closed repeatedly in 2014 due to a smell. After examining the Diageo refinery and looking for propane leaks, the smell was eventually linked to a leak of sewer gas from a buried sewer line. In that incident, high levels of sulfur dioxide were briefly detected at the nearby Superior Court and at Central High.
On one occasion, a large number of students and school employees went to the hospital for treatment, with reports of burning eyes, nausea and vomiting. A Source reporter sent to the scene on that day was able to detect a faint whiff of a sewer smell and on the day of another school closure could not detect any smell. As students boarded buses to leave one student, who did not want to be named, told the reporter the smell was noticeable but not severe and had dissipated, but that students and staff just wanted to leave. Others said the smell had been more severe earlier.
A government task force found smelly – and potentially dangerous – hydrogen sulfide gas leaking out of a buried sewer line not far from the school during the 2014 incidents. To date, there has not yet been a report so far of sulfur dioxide being detected during the current extended school closure.
According to the 2014 task force’s report, investigators tracked hydrogen sulfide through the system, finding it in places inside the sewer higher than 600 parts per million. While no one would normally be in the sewer, the 2014 report found over 50 parts per million in the nearby V.I. Superior Court building, well above U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidelines, which rate amounts higher than 100 parts per million as “immediately dangerous to life and health.” Amounts between 5 and 30 parts per million may be “moderately irritating to the eyes,” according to OSHA guidelines. Much smaller amounts are noticeably smelly. Testing found trace amounts of the gas around Central High.
Surrounding residents and courthouse staff did not report the same severe symptoms or go to the hospital and the surrounding neighborhoods were not evacuated in 2014.
Sen. Alicia Barnes issued a press release Thursday, Nov. 14, asking Limetree Bay Terminals, the nearby oil storage facility, to report “if there were any refinery start-up activities (performance tests, etc.) or terminal operational upsets that may have resulted in emissions that may have caused or contributed to the gaseous odor” and to submit air quality monitoring reports. Its sister company, Limetree Bay Refining, plans to restart a portion of the former Hovensa refinery, sometime early next year. Hovensa shut down in 2012. Barnes was head of DPNR in 2014 and headed up the task force that found the sewer line problem.
Multiple other schools and government offices have also been dismissed due to odors from 2003 to present.
There is no word yet on when students will return to class.