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NO IMMEDIATE SOLUTIONS FOR BENNER BAY

Benner Bay on St. Thomas' east end will undergo a desperately needed cleanup but it won't be anytime soon, according to Dean Plaskett, commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources.
Plaskett testified Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection on the condition of Benner Bay and the mangrove lagoon.
Committee Chair Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg called the area "sad and embarrassing." He said derelict vessels, illegal dumping, uncontrolled sewage, rusting appliances, rotting furniture, empty steel drums and other neglect have made the once-beautiful area an eyesore. To illustrate his point, he showed slides and a video of the bay and lagoon.
Commissioner Plaskett said DPNR has a management plan in the works that will be finished before Sept. 30, 2000, the end of the current fiscal year. The cleanup job will cost about $100,000, he estimated.
Plaskett said that ideally, the owners of the derelict boats should pay for their removal, but locating these people is an almost impossible job – most have left the island, with no forwarding address.
He also said the problem with getting federal funds for the project is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency only allocates funding for boats sunk as a direct result of storms, not for abandoned boats. He added that most of the boats there now are abandoned.
The matter is further complicated, Plaskett said, by the fact that the federal government now requires global positioning satellite data and photos of all vessels that are to be removed.
"I know the management plan is going to take some time to develop," Donastorg said, "but you don't need a comprehensive plan to remove debris from the shoreline." He suggested partnering with the Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission to get this accomplished in the next few weeks.
Plaskett said that his department is investigating economic venues along with the University of the Virgin Islands, with which DPNR has a memorandum of understanding. He said that Benner Bay is an area of particular concern.
Also testifying at the hearing were Carlo Castano, an Independent Boatyard employee and boat owner, and David Berry, local fisherman and farmer.
Castano addressed a concern earlier expressed by Plaskett, that the department was looking for one individual believed to be responsible for most of the derelict boats.
"John Witt is a poor dude, and you're not going to get a cent from him," Castano said. He explained that Witt was a diver and salvager who brought up the boats for owners who never paid him. He said he isn't a good source of revenue.
Castano described the plight of the boat owners in Benner Bay and surrounding areas, and offered an idea for improving conditions. He said that when improvements are made, a breakwater would improve the anchorage and protect the mangroves as well. He also said that if mooring permits were easier to come by, responsible boaters would be in the area.
Castano added that as far as federal funding goes, all boats in the area should come under storm damage, and therefore qualify for funding. He said they aren't simply abandoned.
David Berry said local fishermen and farmers are hurting economically.
"There are five different government departments regarding fishing and farming, and none of them will offer a grant or any disaster assistance to the fishermen or the farmers," he said.
Berry also presented an idea to help not only Benner Bay, but the whole island. Describing an artificial reef off the coast of Alabama composed of old cars and boats, he said it is very successful, drawing unheard of numbers of fish.
"That same thing could be done here, with these derelict boats, and boats from all around the island," Berry said, adding, "I certainly wouldn't have much problem with too many fish."
Also attending the Tuesday session were Sens. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Donald "Ducks" Cole and George Goodwin.
Donastorg said the next meeting of his committee is at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21, to hear the concerns of the fishermen on environmental and economic matters.
He invited the public to attend and testify on these issues. For more information, he said, call 340-693-3665.
Editor's note: Also on the agenda for the upcoming meeting Tuesday is a review of the Ritz-Carlton's CZM permit.

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