July 1, 2002 – Federal and local environmental enforcement agents say they're taking action over the discovery of asbestos at a Water Island demolition depot.
Both — agents of the Environmental Protection Agency and of the Planning and Natural Resources Department — also say they want answers from the U.S. Department of Interior, which has been hauling construction debris to the site from the old Sea Cliff Hotel and a group of nearby villas.
Water Island residents themselves also are seeking answers, making dozens of calls to the St. Thomas EPA office demanding protection from asbestos contamination. "In the past two weeks, I have spoken with many residents of Water Island who are expressing to me the desire to see EPA take certain action," the federal agency's V.I. coordinator, Jim Casey, said Monday. "All we can do is try to secure some type of feedback and determine what would be the quickest course of action."
DPNR Commissioner Dean Plaskett says he wants to know why Interior officials failed to file for hazardous material permits from the local government, Records show that one permit was obtained at the time the structures were torn down, but permits for moving the rubble to another site were not sought as required, he said.
"Somehow there was an oversight and some of the permits were overlooked. Something slipped through the cracks," said Leonard Reed, DPNR environmental protection enforcement chief. He said his office is "trying to determine if any federal regulations were violated. If so, it would be referred to the U.S. EPA."
Concerns about possible asbestos contamination were raised in May by a Water Island resident who is a Public Works Department employee. On June 14, Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood ordered a household trash dump located next to the dump site off limits after receiving a report that asbestos fibers were being released by contractors running heavy equipment over concrete rubble.
Tests conducted by DPNR shortly afterward revealed the presence of asbestos in 13 of 15 samples taken at the site. But Reed said the substance detected was not the dangerous "friable asbestos" that had raised concerns. "Friable would crumble under hand pressure," he said. "These are floor tiles and concrete blocks."
But Casey said asbestos fibers also can be released in the air in the form of dust created by crushed concrete. Both agencies say they've heard from a Water Islands resident living near the demolition site who says dust from there has found its way into her home.
Reed said DPNR is taking the matter seriously. He noted that the woman had written "asking us to test the dust inside her home, asking us to test the cistern water for possible asbestos contamination and asking us to test the site where the rubble was removed, for asbestos." He added, "We are in the process of responding."
Meanwhile, Casey said he has conveyed similar concerns to the Interior Department site supervisor on Water Island and to Interior officials in Washington, D.C. They have "promised to touch base with residents through the Water Island Civic Association," he said Monday.
Because Interior is operating the contaminated demolition site, it must take the lead in cleanup, Casey said. Reed agreed, but said it will be DPNR's concern about how the asbestos-laden concrete will be taken off of Water Island, and where it will go after that.
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