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Decades-long project begins to clean Tutu Wells
Environmental cleanup crews setting up system to filter out toxins

Wednesday, September 10th 2003

Daily News Photos by SEAN McCOY EPA contractors drill behind the V.I. Education Department Curriculum Center in Anna's Retreat on St. Thomas.

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 said.

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 the reports.

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 environmental projects.

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.