Originally created 05/18/99

Pollution junking up Virgin Islands



CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands -- You won't see this vista on any postcards: A towering heap of scrap metal and junked cars, a smoldering cauldron of underground gases, coppery liquid trickling off hillsides of trash into pools of Caribbean fish.

Aerial infrared studies of the Bovoni landfill -- the only one on St. Thomas -- reveal perpetual underground fires caused by inadequate methane venting. Sometimes flames shoot out of the ground, bringing a rush of firefighters to the scene.

Practically everyone on St. Thomas agrees the facility is an inadequate, outdated health risk -- and something of an embarrassment for a place that seeks to be a mecca for beachcombers and reef lovers.

If anything, the 32-square-mile island needs to take special care with its waste. It has half of the archipelago's 114,000 people, and most of the 2 million tourists who visit the U.S. territory annually see its shores.

But the Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1994 that the Virgin Islands produce 9.2 pounds of garbage per person per day, more than double the U.S. mainland average of 4.4 pounds.

Jim Casey, the EPA coordinator for U.S. Virgin Islands, said that at the current rate of garbage collection, Bovoni will be able to absorb trash for five more years at most.

"The territory is faced with what is going to become a crisis ... if not addressed very, very soon," he said.

Officials say one reason the island has such a high rate of trash creation is all those tourists who visit, most of them making day-trips from cruise ships. In addition, there also are no dumping fees, which would encourage individuals and businesses to cut down on garbage, and the island has no recycling program.

Local agencies have reported dying vegetation and decreased animal life in a nearby lagoon and caution residents against fishing there.

"The problem here is the leaching that goes into the sea, which in many ways is our livelihood," said Sen. Adlah Donastorg, chairman of the territorial Senate Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection and a critic of the lack of progress in addressing the waste problem.

Plans have circulated for years for replacing the quarter-century-old Bovoni dump with a modern, environmentally friendlier waste disposal facility. But the problem is money, and priorities.

Building one could cost up to $70 million, said Geoffrey Watson, the territory's environmental services director.

But the territorial government is practically bankrupt. As a result of hurricane damage, declining tourism revenues and mismanagement, it is saddled with a $1.2 billion debt -- a stupefying sum for such a small population. In April, Gov. Charles Turnbull said there were only $2 million in government coffers.

Officials say a soon-to-be-released austerity plan allots the landfill even less than last year's $1.9 million.

The acting public works commissioner, Harold Thompson Jr., said at a recent hearing on Bovoni that his department lacked funds even for water tanks needed for firefighting at the landfill.

Much more is needed to drill wells for venting gasses and to buy equipment for monitoring air emissions, water and sediment.

Turnbull recently said he hoped to draw private investors to build a modern facility and absorb the startup costs. But prospects are unclear, and at best it would take years.

Pressure is mounting for action.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services branded Bovoni a public health hazard in a report noting "unstable earth and potential fires and explosions (and) potentially harmful fumes emitted through open fissures."

The EPA has requested the removal of scrap metal and contaminated soil from parts of the dump that border mangrove swamps.

Three years ago, the local health department opened a respiratory clinic for residents of nearby neighborhoods.

Although exact numbers are not available, acting District Health Officer Audria Thomas said that cases of asthma and pulmonary disease in the area are rising and that other symptoms attributable to Bovoni included itchy and watery eyes, nasal problems and skin rashes.

Some people are simply moving away.

Heidi Windel, 54, left the Bovoni area after developing respiratory problems she blames on the dump.

"There were plenty of occasions when we heard explosions," she recalled. "You'd look over at the hill and see the glow."