There’s been a lot of hand-wringing since the news broke that seven sites at Caneel Bay Resort contain dangerous contaminants.
Now, one person has decided to do something about it.
Acting as a private citizen, David DiGiacomo, an attorney who practices in Colorado and owns a home on St. John, is doing the legal work to hold the owners of Caneel Bay Resort accountable.
“Under the Resource Recovery Conservation Act, a private citizen has the right to take action against a polluter to sue and demand clean up,” said DiGiacomo.
On Sept. 22, DiGiacomo sent a Notice of Intent to File Suit to Gary Engle, the managing partner of CBI Acquisitions, LLC, which operates the buildings and facilities at Caneel Bay Resort within the Virgin Islands National Park. The notice is also addressed to V.I. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., officials in the National Park Service, the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Under the Resource Recovery Conservation Act, notice must be given 90 days before the actual lawsuit is filed,” DiGiacomo said. “The intention is to get whoever is responsible to clean it up, or to get the EPA to commence an action to force a cleanup.”
DiGiacomo has been studying three environmental assessment reports completed in 2012, 2014 and 2017, which list numerous violations of the Resource Recovery Conservation Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, the Compensation and Liability Act and the Clean Water Act.
“The 2017 report lists contamination by chemicals that can kill plants, animals and people,” DiGiacomo said. The list of pollutants includes Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds, arsenic, mercury, organochlorine pesticides, Volatile Organic Compounds, benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene, 1- and 2-methylnaphthalene, organophosphorus and organochlorine pesticides, selenium, silver, benzo(b)fluoranthene, dieldrin (pesticide) and PCBs.
DiGiacomo interviewed a former employee at the resort, who has told him of rusting barrels of DDT (a pesticide) left near a water catchment area and heard tales of illegal dumping of material containing asbestos behind Honeymoon Beach.
It’s unclear how extensive the contamination is.
“There are many places in the 2017 report where the environmental engineer says more investigation is warranted,” DiGiacomo said.
However, further investigation was never done. Later in 2017, Hurricane Irma tore through the territory, causing severe damage to the iconic resort built by Laurance Rockefeller in 1956, when he helped establish the Virgin Islands National Park. The resort has essentially remained closed since then.
Caneel Bay Resort sits on 150 acres of land within the park’s boundaries and is subject to strict development guidelines by the National Park Service under a Retained Use Estate agreement, or RUE. CBIA now holds the Retained Use Estate – an agreement similar to a lease – but it is set to expire in 2023.
CBIA is negotiating to extend the lease, but DiGiacomo believes CBIA has violated the law and dishonored the wishes expressed by Rockefeller when he deeded the property to the park in 1983.
That agreement states that whoever holds the RUE “will use and maintain the premises in such a manner that will (a) be consistent with the preservation of such outstanding scenic and other features of national significance and (b) preserve the premises to the extent feasible in their natural condition for the public benefit, enjoyment and inspiration.”
DiGiacomo said he decided to move forward with the lawsuit now as CBIA is negotiating for an extension. “It’s critical to assess the extent of the contamination, and then on the behalf of the people, insist that it is cleaned up.”
The National Park Service may bear part of the responsibility, DiGiacomo said.
“It’s clear that there were many recommendations for action. Surely, someone [in the Park Service] would have known about it, but they neglected to do anything about it. There are no documents showing that they took action.”
DiGiacomo said he is working on behalf of the community, without compensation.
“Nobody has paid me, and if I win, I can’t get anything. The penalty goes to the U.S. government.” The lawyer said the hurricane has made it even more critical that a complete environmental assessment moves forward because it could have caused the contamination to become even more widespread.
Asked why he would take on such a task, he said, “I’ve spent my entire career – 42 years – trying to address unfairness and tragedy.” In Colorado, DiGiacomo has worked as a court-appointed attorney defending children who were neglected and abused. His law practice has specialized in representing accident victims, especially those injured in industrial accidents.
Although he does not practice law in the Virgin Islands, as a layperson DiGiacomo has helped organized nonprofit groups such as the Bellevue Tenants Association, which fought to compel its corporate owner to repair damage caused by Hurricane Irma.
DiGiacomo is vice president of the Island Green Living Association and serves on the board of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, but he said neither organization has signed on as a partner in the lawsuit, although they may support its intent.
“This [lawsuit] has taken a lot of energy and risk, but I hope it shows how committed I am to the people, the culture and the environment,” DiGiacomo said. “I believe we have one of the most amazing spots in the world. It should be a World Heritage Site, respected and preserved.”