July 10, 2002 – Instead of delivering a promised cleanup plan for a Water Island demolition site where asbestos is accumulating, the U.S. Department of Interior has presented local federal authorities with a menu of actions it says have worked in the past and might work again.
Last week, after the Planning and Natural Resources Department confirmed asbestos contamination at the demolition site operated by Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, officials in Washington promised to deliver a cleanup, or remediation, plan by Monday. But when Monday came, what Interior provided was a list of options for removing the rubble still sitting at the Water Island site.
"We received a letter from Department of the Interior detailing the history of removal actions they have done, and included in the letter is a list of options for how they are going to address the situation," said Jim Casey, St. Thomas coordinator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Casey said the EPA will make a quick study of Interior's letter and give a prompt response but will not express a preference as to the best way to clean up the asbestos. "We do not pick options. We are going to provide comments on the options listed," he said.
Federal authorities also had promised last week to release the information to the media. But on Tuesday morning, members of the press were told the details would not be made public for another week, so as to give the EPA and other agencies time to review the letter and weigh the options.
DPNR Commissioner Dean Plaskett said on Wednesday that he, too, got the Interior document on Monday and has the same read on it as Casey. However, he said there is a section called "remediation options" in which the Interior officials say they favor one of the options that he said described a procedure for removing the contaminated debris.
But Plaskett said it's also not up to DPNR to say how to solve the problem at the demolition site. "We are a regulatory agency, so we don't specifically tell you what process … to use," he said. "That's not our job. If we were to do that, then we're acting as consultants."
Interior is the lead agency for cleaning up the site, he said, and to satisfy the local government, it must present a remediation plan and let DPNR look it over and say what procedures it must follow locally to comply with environmental protection laws.
This procedure was ignored when the Bureau of Reclamation began tearing down the old Sea Cliff Hotel and abandoned villas at the Water Island catchment basin, Plaskett said. Site managers failed to file for air pollution control and demolition permits, he said.
"They had something from CZM [Coastal Zone Management] called a federal consistency agreement; however, that doe not deal with the local rules and regulations," he said.
Casey said the EPA's "desire is that the Department of the Interior take some initiative to redress the concerns presented by the Water Island residents."
Those concerns are especially keen for homeowners living in the area known as "the catchment basin," where residents say airborne asbestos-laden dust from a group of demolished villas has crept indoors and possibly into their cisterns. At least one resident has written to DPNR asking officials to test for contaminants around the immediate area.
Water Island resident Brad Monroe, a contractor, is among those calling for more accountability from the demolition site operators. He said the job of cleaning up the asbestos has been complicated because workers dumped contaminated debris on top of rubble taken from another Interior demolition site on the island. The Bureau of Reclamation is in the process of demolishing abandoned structures as part of the federal plan to turn the island wholly over to the V.I. government.
Monroe said some residents, including his wife, who heads the Water Island Civic Association, had seen a written plan for the demolition in which the project manager said debris from the first site would be moved off island before work started at the second site. But that didn't happen, Monroe said, and as a result asbestos contaminants may have mingled with the all of the debris on site, making removal more complicated.
Further, "Nobody was privy to this contract, because it was never put out to bid," Monroe, who has lived on Water Island for the last four years, said.
He also said much of the problem could have been avoided if Interior had filed for permits with DPNR as local contractors have had to do since the V.I. government strengthened the local building code in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn. Plaskett said Water Island site managers never filed for those permits, although Interior officials said that they had complied with federal requirements for debris removal.
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