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June 4, 2002 – Almost 10 years after a massive fire brought home the need for a different way of handling refuse on St. John, the permanent, official and technical shutdown of the Susannaberg landfill ordered by federal officials then has yet to occur.
Federal authorities who monitor the territory's landfills say they know this is the case but aren't willing to press the issue — so that they can stay focused on more urgent problems at the territory's other, larger dumps on St. Croix and St. Thomas.
For six months, nearly a decade ago, residents of St. John saw the eerie glow of an underground dump fire blazing orange in the night. It took a team of specialists from Texas to dig down to the source and extinguish the blaze using special chemicals. The heat at the core of the fire was 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, they said.
"We were faced with two main things," recalled Leo Francis, who as Public Works commissioner at the time was in charge of solving the problem. One was "the health condition of the people on St. John, especially with a school nearby. There was a lot of smoke and a lot of people with breathing problems." The other: "This was something new to us. We had to find a reputable company that did this kind of work."
Once the underground fire was put out, Public Works, the company it contracted and the Fire Service took some steps to reduce the chances of another major flare-up. But Francis, now an engineer in private practice, said the mitigation team stopped short of completing the required step-by-step procedures.
"There's a process called capping, where you put out the fire, vent the remaining gases, and in some cases burn them off, then cap the landfill with a layer of dirt that — with the use of a liner — covers the landfill and allows vegetation to grow," he said. And that, he said, "never happened."
The landfill combustion did light a fire under government officials to get going on the federal mandate to stop dumping at Susannaberg and set up a transfer station so the island's solid waste could be transported to St. Thomas.
According to Ira Wade, current Public Works deputy commissioner for St. John, some of the equipment needed for processing St. John's trash for shipment off island had been sitting in Susannaberg for at least three years before the fire broke out.
Today, the transfer station is in full swing and the landfill is effectively closed in the sense that no more waste is being taken there. "We haven't had an incident such as what had occurred in 1993," Wade said. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have visited the site and are satisfied with what they see, he added.
But the EPA's V.I. coordinator on St. Thomas disputes that. To effect an official shutdown, "The old landfill would have to be capped completely," Jim Casey said. "Monitoring wells would have to be put in place to make sure contaminants are not leaking down into sensitive resources … groundwater." (There are wells in the area; firefighters used water from them in fighting the Susannaberg fire.)
At the same time, Casey conceded that there is no timetable for getting those things done, especially in light of the pressures from the EPA on the V.I. government to close the Bovoni landfill on St. Thomas and the Anguilla landfill on St. Croix. Compared to Susannaberg, there's more garbage and more stress being placed on Bovoni, Casey said, because St. Thomas has 10 times the population of St. John — without even taking into consideration the waste being barged over daily from St. John.
And the daily deliveries from St. John's waste stream are considerable, according to Public Works solid waste manager Sonia Nelthropp, who referred to the island as the largest contributor to the territory's landfills. "St. John is producing more garbage than anybody," she said.
Nelthropp is in charge of managing the territory's wastewater and solid waste. It's a task made difficult by factors ranging from continually changing priorities for aging sewer systems to scavenging birds at Anguilla that pose a threat to planes landing and taking off from the adjacent Henry E. Rohlsen Airport. But the one thing she can point to on her list of successes is the St. John transfer station.
"As a transfer station, it is operating properly, " she said.
Local officials say the chances of future fires have been reduced through several policy changes, notably the mandatory removal of tires and the draining of gasoline and other chemical fluids from abandoned cars that are transported to the site.
St. Thomas has so many abandoned cars of its own that have been taken to the Bovoni dump that, for now, those on St. John are being kept at Susannaberg. Wade, who organized a recent roundup of derelict vehicles, said that getting them off the streets and roadsides is one thing; getting them to Bovoni is another.
New equipment expected to arrive within a few days will help, he said. One item is a compactor that will crush the cars and make it easier to ship them to disposal sites. His goal for Fiscal Year 2003 will be a whole new transfer station on St. John, he said.
None of the officials interviewed had any comment on what would be done, or when, to shut the Susannaberg landfill down forever.
Mitigation experts who were on hand at the time of the fire said the underground blaze was caused by trapped methane — a byproduct of decomposition — ignited by the sun and fueled by traces of volatile fuels left in discarded propane tanks and other hazardous materials.
Casey stressed the need to install monitoring devices at the site to alert personnel to methane and other chemicals that are formed as layers of long-buried trash continuously break down into simpler substances "The federal agency is not pleased that the work is still undone," he said.

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