One week ago, St. John residents from the East End to Cruz Bay were awakened during the night by the smell of smoke. Several said they checked to see if their house was on fire. The following day, residents logged complaints on social media of sore throats, headaches, and aggravated allergies.
The source of their complaints is a dump site at Pockwood Pond in Tortola, where fires smolder and then spontaneously erupt. On Feb. 3, a northeast wind blew the smoke from one flare-up directly over to St. John, temporarily subjecting USVI residents to the misery that residents of Tortola’s West End have been subjected to for more than a year.
Officials from the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands are well aware of the situation, and although they are confident the problem will soon improve, serious concerns still linger.
In December, BVI officials hailed the arrival of a control panel for Tortola’s incinerator at Pockwood Pond, which has not functioned since it was damaged in a fire in November 2018.
Like all islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the British Virgin Islands has had to cope with an unprecedented amount of trash and storm debris. The fire that damaged the incinerator more than a year after the storm has resulted in a “mountain” of trash, much of which would have been incinerated if the equipment was operational.
Since January, waste management staff members on Tortola have conducted tests to ensure the incinerator can go back online and are hopeful the dump fires will abate as that process continues.
On Friday, Jamal Nielsen, special assistant to the USVI’s commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said, “DPNR is aware of the situation and Commissioner [Jean-Pierre] Oriol recently spoke with the BVI on the issue at the Feb. 4 IVIC meeting. The Government of the Virgin Islands (US) was informed that the incinerator was brought back online as of January 29, 2020, and it is working intermittently over 12 hour periods.”
Even when the incinerator is running full time, however, it is likely to spew toxic fumes into the skies because the incinerator has not been outfitted with a “scrubber” to remove dangerous particles, according to an article in the BVI Beacon.
The Coral Bay Community Council hosts the PurpleAir Monitor in Upper Carolina on St. John. It was placed indoors and was measuring inside air quality when the fire broke out in early February. A graph from PurpleAir website shows a spike in emissions from the dump at that time.
Dana Kampa reported in the BVI Beacon that BVI officials have been promising for more than a decade to install a pollution-control scrubber to filter the incinerator’s smoke. She said high levels of airborne chemicals, including dangerous dioxins, were of particular concern.
Kampa said the BVI government signed a $1 million contract with Consutech for the scrubber and paid a $500,000 deposit, but it is not in place.
“As of Monday, components of the scrubber including large pipes were sitting outside the building where the incinerator is located,” Kampa reported.
Nielsen said DPNR officials have expressed their concerns on behalf of USVI residents. On Feb. 5 Oriol spoke to the EPA on whether or not the agency could assist the BVI through its international program, Nielsen said. “They informed us they would look into the situation and determine what, if anything, they could provide.”
The BVI maintains sensors developed by PurpleAir, an air quality monitoring network which makes its information available online. The public can access this information by logging onto the map and inserting Romney Park, Tortola in the search bar.
According to the Beacon article, on Jan. 25, “Sensors at Romney Park in West End recorded an air quality index value of 321. For values above 300, the EPA advises ‘health warnings of emergency conditions if [people] are exposed for 24 hours,’ adding, ‘the entire population is more likely to be affected’ at this range.”
Nielsen said DPNR does not maintain air quality monitors on St. John, though it is aware that PurpleAir monitors are installed on the BVI West End, and on St. John at Coral Bay and East End that give real time information.
According to an article in St. John Tradewinds, the EPA installed a PurpleAir Monitor on St. John in 2011.
A search of the map on Feb. 9 indicated a spike in particles at a site in Upper Carolina during the first week of February, when St. John residents lodged complaints on social media.
The problem of BVI’s smoke affecting St. John residents goes back to 2004 and has received intermittent attention for at least ten years.
Rafe Boulon, who was director of the territory’s Division of Fish and Wildlife and later resource manager with the Virgin Islands National Park, recalls going to Tortola with a group of USVI officials to view the incinerator when it was being installed in 2011.
“They said they had a brand new incinerator ready to go, but they had a little more electrical work; they said they had all the latest equipment – scrubbers that met EPA standards,” Boulon said on Friday. “We said, ‘Please filter your waste stream, to get the batteries and tires and large plastic items out that could burn and produce some pretty nasty smoke,’ and as far as we can tell, they haven’t done anything since then.”
In May 2018, 10 firefighters from the USVI traveled to the BVI to assist firefighters there in combatting a blaze in Cox Heath, also located on the western end of Tortola. That site has served as an additional storage location for Hurricane Irma debris.
Editor’s note: This has been revised since publication to clarify potential areas of confusion.