Dec. 16, 2003 – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking into how abandoned vehicles towed off St. Thomas and St. John streets as the highest-profile part of a Turnbull administration beautification project are being disposed of at the Bovoni landfill.
Jim Casey, the EPA's top official in the territory, said on Monday that the federal agency is investigating whether the V.I. government has violated environmental law in dumping the derelict cars and trucks at the dump.
Casey said men seen working on the cars at the landfill on Thursday were disassembling the engine block of one with a hammer and a chisel while draining the fuel into a bucket below the car. Although there is a used-oil storage collection unit at the landfill, engine coolant, oil and fuel are leaking from a large stack of junked vehicles and leaching into the ground by the mangrove lagoon at the edge of the landfill.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's Abandoned Car and Beautification Task Force is chaired by James O'Bryan Jr., St. Thomas and Water Island administrator and public relations aide to the governor. It has removed more than 1,400 abandoned vehicles, commonly found rusting and stripped of usable components along roads and in fields.
Personnel from the EPA and the Public Works and Planning and Natural Resources Departments conducted a routine inspection of operations at the Bovoni landfill on Thursday, Casey said. The disposal of abandoned vehicles there raised several concerns that the EPA is taking a closer look at, Casey said.
EPA officials are concerned that the current practice of disposing of the derelict cars and trucks at the landfill could be causing motor fuels and oils to leach into the nearby mangroves and wetlands, as well as to pose a fire hazard to Bovoni area residents and businesses.
Casey said the way the vehicles are being disposed of at the landfill does "not meet the best management practices we suggested should be in place" and may be in violation of local or federal environmental regulations.
One concern raised by environmental authorities, Casey said, is that spent oil, batteries and fuel — three things that could pose a hazard collectively — are being deposited in the same area of the dump. He said there are no fire extinguishers at the site where the cars are being left, there is no electric power in the area., and scavengers have been seen going thorough the vehicles for parts — which could pose liability and fire safety issues.
Casey also said the roads at the landfill — often single lane — are not accessible to fire trucks or other emergency vehicles needing to get to the site in the event of a fire or other emergency.
"The greatest danger is to the residents and adjacent commercial property by the landfill," he said. "If there is a fire, these vehicles are going to go up in flames. They have fuel, they have oil, they have batteries and tires. They are stacked together waiting to be disposed of."
The EPA will continue its investigation at the landfill to determine the potential impact on the wetlands and lagoon and "see if there are any violations the agency needs to take action on," Casey said.
"There are going to be follow-up assessments and these will be conducted soon," he said.
Casey stressed that it is still undetermined whether environmental laws have been violated. The concern of the EPA, he said, is to work with the V.I. government to keep the beautification program running and to help disseminate information on how derelict vehicles should be disposed of properly. Some problems are not necessarily violations of law, but are cases of the vehicles not being disposed of the best way, he said.
The EPA is also meeting with DPNR staff to determine if any notices of violation have been issued on the local level.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett said on Monday that he was unaware of last Thursday's inspection but that someone from his staff likely took part. He added that there have been previous discussions with Government House officials over how the cars should be disposed of.
"I know on St. Croix there was some discussion with Government House staff," Plaskett said. He said he was unsure whether DPNR officials had taken any action or issued any notices of violation over the disposal of cars at the landfill. "I don't know what [DPNR] personnel have been doing, but I will conduct a followup," he said.
O'Bryan has periodically issued releases touting the accomplishments of the Abandoned Car and Beautification Task Force on St. Thomas. In one week alone, last July, tow trucks made off with more than 70 abandoned vehicles, along with gallons of used oil, scores of engine blocks and hundreds of old automotive parts and tires. (See "Week's toll of abandoned vehicles tops 70".)
While the volume of "rolling debris" is a lot smaller on St. John, it tends to pile up, nonetheless. Last year, police and Public Works personnel towed away 30 derelict vehicles in the space of three weeks. (See "Roundup brings in 30 abandoned cars so far".) At that time on St. John, a Public Works official said that workers were draining the clunkers of fuel, oil and coolant and removing the tires to ready them for crushing and transportation to the Bovoni landfill.
On Friday, the day after the EPA inspection, back hoes were seen moving several abandoned vehicles around at the landfill. Government House public information personnel did not return telephone calls seeking comment on what the government's policy is regarding the disposal of vehicles.
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