Aug. 27, 2002 – As Virgin Islanders came forward Monday to let members of a national commission know how they feel their environment is affecting their health, the answers were both expected and unexpected.
The opportunity to express their views to a panel of experts working to create a national database on health problems in poor and medically underserved communities came via a teleconferenced "listening" session on both campuses of the University of the Virgin Islands..
"This has exceeded my expectations in terms of the breadth of the issues that have been raised," Delegate Donna M. Christensen said afterward. Christensen, one of the panelists, is a member of the Environmental Policy Commission of the Congressional Black Caucus Environmental Justice Brain Trust.
UVI President LaVerne Ragster was also on the panel. She and Christensen are among 15 members of the commission, which also includes other members of Congress, business executives, educators and scientists.
Members of the commission have been traveling throughout the United States to interact with medically underserved communities where people suffer in large numbers from chronic diseases. At the UVI listening session, members heard about problems and solutions waiting to become reality. They heard about conditions that bring about poor health in the community and ways in which the environment itself provides an obstacle to better health.
One person testifying, Daphne Lewis, gave a tearful account of how she as a cancer patient slept on airport floors after flying off island for chemotherapy sessions that took place too late in the day for her to connect with a flight back home. She said she and others sometimes even lacked the funds to buy a plane ticket to get to the doctor.
"This is an example of the kinds of problems you have when you have an isolated community surrounded by water," Ragster said.
But even as people are trying to leave the territory to get medical help, others are trying to get in, Amos Carty, legal counsel for Roy L. Schneider Hospital, said. Local hospitals are reluctant to turn away illegal immigrants who show up in need of care, he said, but providing that care puts an enormous financial burden on a hospital system that already serves a largely uninsured patient population.
Both Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas and Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix "are caring for a large number of uninsured individuals and a large number of illegal immigrants," Carty said.
A farmer testifying said food products from abroad now make up most of the modern Virgin Islands diet, undermining local agriculture and the consuming of traditional foods that once were beneficial to health. Another speaker said shipping containers that bring food to the territory also bring problems such as insects and snakes.
Industrial emissions and uncontrolled sewage also were cited as major threats to local health. UVI Humanities Division faculty member Gene Emmanuel recalled that when he was a child, it was possible on St. Croix to dive for conch and lobster. But now, he said, the waters around the island are "thoroughly polluted with sewage."
Panelists said many of the problems they heard at Monday's listening session were similar to those expressed in other U.S. communities where industries move in and people don't have the means or the inclination to move out.
But the panel also heard reports about the work being done by local groups to identify environmental problems and about actions that have been taken to protect people's health.
Yvonne Petersen, former executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, told how SEA once obtained air-sampling kits and trained residents living around the Hovensa refinery in their use. The panel also heard about a plan developed by environmental engineers to turn wastewater into a marketable water product and of plans to create a cancer registry and build a cancer center on St. Thomas.
Some who have worked on finding solutions to pollution problems said they still have a long way to go. Kelly Gloger, senior associate for Sustainable Systems and Design International, said the wastewater recycling plan was developed with the encouragement of Christensen's office and has attracted the support of local environmentalists and farmers. But he said it has not drawn a favorable response from local government officials.
The purpose of the commission members' daylong listening session on the UVI campuses was to gather information for a health problems database on the communities they have visited over the last two years. Drawing from that database, the commission hopes to formulate proposals to Congress for programs and policies to improve the quality of life in underserved communities.
"We are not here to create a nice document," Mildred McClain, commission co-chair and executive director of Citizens for Environmental Justice, said. "We want to influence the Congress as a whole as they make decisions."
More listening sessions are scheduled in other communities across the country in the months to come. A final report on the information gathered through the listening sessions is to be presented to the Congressional Black Caucus, tentatively in September 2003.
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