Aug. 29, 2001 – A current publication of the National Conference of State Legislatures features the Virgin Islands prominently on the front page, and that's not good news, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said Wednesday.
He cited the August/September issue of "Legisbrief," a publication of "briefing papers on the important issues of the day," which has an article on the front page about the value of "healthy" beaches to the economic well-being of their local communities.
A statistical box on the page shows that for 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Virgin Islands ranked third in the nation in number of beach closings due to water pollution. California was first with 3,547, and Florida was second with 671. The Virgin Islands recorded 307.
California and Florida have by far the longest coastlines in the nation, excluding Alaska — California's extends more than 1,000 miles, and Florida's, more than 1,200 miles — of which 663 miles actually are beaches. The shorelines of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John total about 180 miles.
"This is very bad publicity for the territory," Donastorg said in a press release. He termed the V.I. ranking "outrageous given the size of our territory in relation to the other coastal jurisdictions." He added, "If we continue to contaminate our waters and kill our coral reefs, we'll also end up contaminating ourselves and killing our economy. Tourism depends on the health of our waters."
Behind the statistics, the situation is even worse than it appears in the Legisbrief report. Those 307 beach closings were for St. Croix alone, so they reflect a shoreline of well under 100 miles. No data were provided to the EPA for St. Thomas and St. John. Submission of data was on a voluntary basis. Puerto Rico and Alaska were the only other shoreline jurisdictions that did not supply information.
Aaron Hutchins, environmental engineer/supervisor in the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Environmental Protection Division, was designated as the territory's lead BEACH Act liaison at the start of this year. The acronym refers to the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000. Hutchins confirmed Thursday that the V.I. beach-closing statistics are for St. Croix only.
He noted that the Source has "had extensive coverage of the whole situation of the LBJ Pump Station that was bypassing [treatment of sewage] for about a year." Because of that situation alone, "We would have seen numerous public advisories," he said. There also were recurring problems with untreated sewage being discharged because of breakdowns of the Figtree Pump Station.
Nationally, according to the two-page Legisbrief article, "The leading causes of advisories and closings are water-quality problems from increased bacteria levels and stormwater runoff after a rain … The most frequent sources of disease-carrying 'bugs' are sewage overflows, polluted stormwater runoff, sewage treatment plant malfunctions, boating wastes and overloaded septic systems."
See the Beach 2000 web site for the Environmental Protection Agency's 1999 National Health Protection Survey report on Virgin Islands beaches. The site provides monitoring information on 27 St. Croix beaches and states that no data were provided for St. Thomas and St. John.
Donastorg, who chaired the Senate Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection in the 23rd Legislature, said old, overloaded and poorly maintained sewage treatment systems, stormwater runoff and faulty septic systems are to blame locally.
Along with his press release, Donastorg's office distributed a copy of a letter dated Aug. 17 that he sent to Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole, who now chairs the environmental committee — which had been combined with the former Government Operations Committee at the start of the 24th Legislature with Cole as its chair. The combined committee was again divided into two in July after Sen. Emmett Hansen switched from the minority bloc to the majority and was named to chair Government Operations.
Donastorg asked Cole to convene his committee to examine the causes of the territory's large number of beach closings and "possible solutions to abate the situation." He expressed concern about the public health impact on residents as well as visitors.
The Legisbrief article noted that the BEACH Act "requires states to adopt enforceable water-quality standards, to improve beach-water monitoring programs and to report unsafe beach conditions to the public." It also noted that incentives and federal funding will be available to develop specific programs for recreational waters."
Donastorg posed these questions to Cole: "Can we receive grants from the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coast Health Act of 2000? Does the federal government, through the EPA, interface with DPNR on this problem? Does DPNR have a plan to abate this problem in years to come? What is the state of the various wastewater treatment plants and the conditions of the effluent pipes?"
The answer to the first of those questions is yes, according to Hutchins. The Virgin Islands has submitted an application for the maximum grant of $57,000, he said.
At the end of May, the EPA announced that a total of about $2 million in grants would be available to coastal jurisdictions "to improve monitoring and public notification of human health risks at beaches." According to an EPA release, the funds are for two purposes: to develop water-quality monitoring programs and to notify the public when water-quality problems are detected. July 30 was the deadline to apply for grants.
For this first year of the BEACH Act grant program, Hutchins said, "the EPA decided to divvy up the $2 million equally" among the eligible states and territories — those bordering the open waters and the Great Lakes. That meant that each, if approved, would get about $57,000, regardless of shoreline size.
However, Hutchins added, "depending on who applied and the quality of the applications, the potential is there for additional money. If some don't apply, or are rejected, that frees up more to be put back into the pot to be divided among the successful applicants." He said he wasn't sure when the grants would be announced.
Next year, he said, the EPA is to increase the grant funding available nationally to $25 million, so the territory could qualify for a significantly larger grant.
In Donastorg's view, however, "We should not have to wait for the EPA or some other federal agency to take the initiative." In his release, he added, "We should address these matters on a regular basis, rather than waiting for a crisis."
California, the Legisbrief article stated, "is considering allocating $100 million for FY 2002 to reduce beach closures and postings by 25 percent to 50 percent over an 18-month period."