Three decades of virtually unregulated dumping of waste at the territorys two main landfills has turned acres of paradise into mountains of trash that hide a bubbling cauldron of flammable gas.
For years, assorted household garbage, car batteries, medical waste, used oil, paints aerosols, among other items, have been buried at the Anguilla landfill on St. Croix and the Bovoni landfill on St. Thomas. But whats out of sight doesnt mean out of the environment.
Since its inception 20 years ago, the Bovoni landfill has grown to 34 acres, with a mountain of dirt-covered trash 90 feet high, according to a 1999 study done for the V.I. government by the Maguire Group, Inc. Under the fill dirt is some 1.2 million tons of waste, equivalent to more than 10 Destiny cruise ships .
St. Croixs Anguilla landfill, meanwhile, opened in the mid-1960s and currently covers 33 acres with 1.9 million tons of waste in place at depths up to 81 feet, according to the Maguire Group report.
But calling either Anguilla or Bovoni a landfill is a misnomer. According to the Department of Public Works draft bid packet for a solid waste management facility, the definition of a modern landfill is "usually a lined hole in the ground that is filled with refuse and covered with dirt according to EPA regulations."
But the territorys landfills, operated by Public Works, are not lined to protect nearby ground and surface water from toxic runoff, nor have they been regularly receiving the industry standard of a minimum of six inches of dirt cover on a daily basis. Essentially the Virgin Islands "landfills" are massive dumps.
At a recent Senate Committee on Environmental Protection, Dean Plaskett, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said covering the daily accumulation of deposited trash at the St. Croix site with the daily requirement of fill has been a problem.
"The most blatant noncompliance is the failure to cover the landfill with six inches of dirt everyday," Plaskett said.
At the same hearing, Roan Creque, special projects director for Public Works, said the Anguilla site hasnt had a compacter to properly pack the fill dirt and trash "for a while."
Over the years, that lack of proper compaction has fueled what anyone living on either St. Croix or St. Thomas knows too well acrid landfill fires.
ITS A GAS, GAS, GAS
The problems brewing under the surface of the territorys dumps started when garbage was dumped and then covered with dirt. As the dumped trash decomposes a toxic stew is created, replete with a flammable gas.
If compaction isnt sufficient, however, air pockets form and are filled by the gas produced by the rotting trash. The gas methane is colorless, odorless and as residents of St. Croix and St. Thomas know, flammable.
According to the Maguire report, it is estimated that the Bovoni landfill is currently producing 460 million cubic feet per year of landfill gas while its counterpart on St. Croix is producing gas to the tune of 520 million cubic feet per year.
The Maguire study was done to assess whether the methane could be reduced by using a gas-to-energy scheme. Ridding just the Bovoni site of methane is estimated at approximately $15 million.
In the meantime, Public Works Commissioner Harold Thompson Jr. said that while recurring blazes at the Anguilla dump have been quelled for the time being, its just a matter of time before another fire breaks out. The same goes for the Bovoni site.
"We know there is subterranean fires beneath the landfill," Thompson said, adding that the department is stockpiling fill dirt to smother the next outbreak of flames.
He said the public can assist by sorting trash and by not placing items such as empty propane tanks in trash collection bins. Public Works personnel try to check each load going into the dumps, but they cant check everything, Thompson said.
"As long as there is violation of dumping . . . youre adding more flammable material," Thompson said. "Were trying to check, but cant categorically say we wont have another fire at the landfill."