Decades-long project begins to clean Tutu Wells
Environmental cleanup crews setting up system to
filter out toxins
LARSONWednesday, September 10th
|Daily News Photos by SEAN
McCOY EPA contractors drill behind the V.I. Education
Department Curriculum Center in Anna's Retreat on St.
ST. THOMAS - Hidden behind hard hats, Haz-Mat suits and
respirators, a team of contractors toiled Tuesday under the
blistering September sun.
A giant drill bored into the ground behind the V.I. Education
Department Curriculum Center in Anna's Retreat - the early stages of
a decades-long project to clean dangerous chemicals from groundwater
in the area.
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through its Superfund
program, is overseeing and paying for the project, which calls for
pumping water out of the ground, carbon-filtering and treating it
with other processes and then pumping it back into the aquifer.
A pair of similar, smaller treatment plants have been operating
in the area for several years. But the work this month marks a major
acceleration in the process that officials believe will one day -
though not until the 2020s or later - make groundwater in the area
safe to drink.
"This will take at least 20 to 30 years," said EPA project
manager Caroline Kwan. She said "evolving technology" may speed the
process up - but not by much. "It will be at least 20 years," Kwan
Chemically contaminated soil in the area will be either removed
or treated as part of the Superfund project.
The Tutu Wells once provided water to thousands of residents. But
as homes and businesses came to Tutu Valley far faster than potable
water lines did, the aquifer below the valley was tapped by dozens
of wells. The wells provided drinking and bathing water to area
residents and filled the trucks of many companies that carted the
water to cisterns across the island.
But serious problems slowly were developing.
Gas stations' underground storage tanks leaked. Mechanics' oil
and other chemicals were spilled or dumped on the ground.
Dry-cleaning chemicals and a textile manufacturer's solvents were
improperly disposed of. These cancer-causing chemicals eventually
seeped through the soil and into the water - water that thousands of
residents drank and showered in.
As far back as 1983, tests showed at least two cancer-causing
chemicals in water being taken from wells in the Tutu area. The V.I.
Department of Planning and Natural Resources did nothing about it,
however; officials later said DPNR did not have the staff to analyze
In July 1987, a water company noticed a strong gasoline smell
coming from some well water. The company informed DPNR, which
informed EPA, which took action within days.
Tests showed high to extremely high - and definitely unhealthy -
levels of a witches' brew of chemicals: chlorinated volatile organic
compounds, benzyne, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene. In early August
1987, EPA warned residents not to use water from the area for
drinking, cooking, bathing or dishwashing.
In the next four months, nearly two dozen wells in the area were
closed down and capped, and the long process of assigning and
assessing blame, and developing a cleanup plan, began.
The EPA eventually named four companies as the primary polluters
in the case: Texaco, Esso, O'Henry Dry Cleaners and Laga Industries,
which ran a textile plant in the building that now houses the V.I.
Education Department's Curriculum Center. Several other businesses
in the area, including auto parts stores and car mechanics, were
named as polluters.
After many studies and several years, EPA decided that the best
way to clean the aquifer was to pump out the water, treat it
above-ground and return it to the aquifer. Texaco and Esso have
operated their own small treatment plants near their service
stations for several years.
The larger plant that is being built behind the Curriculum Center
should be operational by next spring, as should a similar one to be
constructed soon near O'Henry, Kwan said.
The pollution is not as extensive below O'Henry, Kwan said, so
that plant may be operational for half as long as the Curriculum
Center one - 10 to 15 years.
Whether residents will feel confident enough to drink the water
remains to be seen.
The lead EPA contractor on the remediation project is CDM Federal
Programs Corp., which has subcontracted some work to Arrowhead
Contracting Inc. Both are mainland-based firms with extensive
experience in similar environmental remediation projects.
Arrowhead has a $2.3 million contract to construct the treatment
plants and operate and maintain them for the first few years.
Arrowhead also has committed to spend at least one-third of that
amount locally by subcontracting with local companies and buying
local products, EPA said.
The V.I. government is not on the hook for the cleanup.
"The money that's funding this remediation is EPA money. It's not
coming from the Virgin Islands government," Kwan said.
When EPA oversees a Superfund cleanup on the mainland, Kwan said,
"The state is required to chip in 10 percent of the cost." But
special federal laws exempt the U.S. territories, including the
Virgin Islands, from that requirement. So all of the cleanup costs
are coming from the EPA's Superfund, the special pool of money
devoted to cleaning up major environmental problems.
Separate from the EPA action, the local government pursued court
action against the main companies responsible for the contamination.
After years of complex litigation and counter-litigation, a federal
appeals court earlier this year upheld a District Court-sanctioned
settlement that should mean the V.I. government will receive at
least $10 million from Texaco, Esso and Laga Industries.
The status of the collection of that money, and how the money
will be used when it is received, was not available Tuesday. The
money is expected to be put in a special fund for use only for
EPA says the construction and operation of the plants will not
pose a health danger to area residents. EPA officials will be in the
territory early next month to hold town meetings and to discuss the
overall project on local talk shows.