Government officials said that sewer lines and manholes around St. Croix Central High, the suspected source of a noxious odor for weeks, are being cleaned and repaired, but no one would say when or if the school will reopen.
Complaints of a sickening odor in the air were called into the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources beginning in mid-February, DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes said at a media conference Wednesday. The odor, described as smelling like “rotten eggs,” can be caused by hydrogen sulfite – sewer gas, she said.
After the first reports, the DPNR air quality team monitored the area around the school and reported “nondetectable limits” in the air, Barnes said, but staff and students continued to complain.
DPNR also tested the air on the south shore, around the Hovensa refinery and the Diageo distillery without locating a source, Barnes said. Hovensa was ordered to stop a cleaning procedure for a few days and at one point, the team inspected Hovensa at 3 a.m. to insure there were no “operational malfunctions.” No source for the odor was located at either of those locations.
On March 18, around 35 students reported to the Juan F. Luis Hospital for treatment, complaining of nausea, dizziness and vomiting.
Central High School was closed and an incidence command team was formed, coordinated by the V.I. Territorial Management Agency, with support from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The incidence team included staff from DPNR, VITEMA, the National Guard, Waste Management, Public Works, the Education Department, the Governor’s Office and the Department of Labor.
Researchers from the agencies monitored and canvassed Estates Profit and Clifton Hill. Residents said that although they smelled the odor, no one reported “the manifestation of ailments” experienced by the students, Barnes said.
Ultimately there was not enough “substantive information or qualitative data” to determine the odors originated from south shore industrial activities and the focus was redirected to the school, according to Barnes.
The next inspection included representatives from the EPA and contractors who helped build the school. Sewer lines, water lines and manholes were inspected and tested around the Herbert Grigg Home, the Curriculum Center and the Territorial Courthouse as well as the high school. Two leaking propane tanks were repaired as a result of the inspections, Barnes said.
“We made a determination, through a series of technical assumptions, that we were dealing with some issues that resulted from some malfunction, operational deficiency or infrastructural deficiency within the Waste Management system,” Barnes concluded.
V.I. Waste Management Authority Director May Adams Cornwall said the agency has dealt with the problem and she described the repair and cleanup work. The Barren Spot pump station, which sends sewage uphill past Central High, and the four manholes in the area were dried and cleaned, she said.
“Once the source, the probable cause, was identified, it was important to deal with the source, with how the source got to the campus and what sections of the campus were affected,” Cornwall said.
Repairs are almost complete and the pump station is being operated every 15 minutes now to reduce hydrogen sulfite levels, according to Cornwall.
To prevent future problems, Darryl Smalls, commissioner of Public Works, said his teams “are working through the holidays if necessary,” mapping the waste and storm water system to identify areas of concern. They will make repairs, recommend repairs, and install cameras to insure the integrity of waste and storm water systems, he said.
None of the officials would give a date or timeline to reopen Central High. Smalls said student safety was “paramount” and he could not estimate when all of the repairs would be completed.
Barnes said, “Again we are providing the appropriate information to the Department of Education and, once the testing is concluded and corrections have been made, we will evaluate operations at that site and make recommendations to the Department of Education.”