Feb, 17, 2004 — Its been six years since a federal agency declared the Bovoni landfill a public health hazard, and resident homeowners now are requesting to be tested for toxic chemicals they believe are affecting their health.
The Bovoni Homeowners Association has formally requested a health assessment by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the same agency that conducted an investigation into the Bovoni dump in 1997.
The association has also asked Delegate Donna M. Christensen tour the area on Thursday to see how the environment has deteriorated since 1998, the association's secretary, Rosita Howard, said.
"Were requesting a more extensive testing than just the one- or two-day sampling tests they did seven years ago," Howard said. "A lot of the homeowners didnt know about the testing back then, because the tests were mainly for the workers at the dump and the residents of the Bovoni housing community. None of the homeowners was tested. Also, the landfill is twice as large as it was seven years ago. I dont think the federal government has a true picture of how the environment there affects people whove lived here the longest the homeowners."
Numerous Bovoni residents have reported health problems they believe result from exposure to the landfill. Howard said she has a cousin whose sinuses were so inflamed and swollen she was rushed by air ambulance to a hospital in Puerto Rico. Another resident, Christina Pickering, said her grandson had sinus surgery because of breathing problems. Many residents say more children in the area are growing up with asthma and other lung-related problems.
According to Howard, "Most everyone here has had some kind of throat problem, experiencing heavy labor with their lungs at night. My son has a skin condition that the doctors dont know the cause for, and it doesnt go away."
One former resident of Bovoni, Patricia Penn, said she believes the landfill has to be the cause of residents' sinus and breathing problems. "When I lived there, it was the only period in my life when I had sinus problems — sneezing and postnasal drip," she said. "When I moved to Contant, my sinuses cleared up soon afterwards, and I havent sneezed in a month. I think the dust that blows into the homes needs to be tested, because I know its affecting the homeowners."
Bovoni Homeowners Association President Terecita Rivera is a longtime resident who was in the area before the V.I. government put the landfill there "temporarily" some 30 years ago. She said her allergies and breathing have gotten worse over the years, and shes seen an increase in the number of different cancers among residents. Because of the concern that dust and toxic chemicals can easily enter into household cisterns, she said, "a lot of us are buying water now, and that is costly. The winds blow in the dirt from the landfill, and its not just household dust. Nobody has tested that," she said.
According to the 1997 study that reviewed on-site air monitoring at the landfill, the Bovoni dump "constituted a public health hazard." The report continues: "Numerous physical hazards, such as fast-moving trucks, unstable earth, and potential fires and explosions exist, as well as potentially harmful fumes emitted through open fissures and vents in the landfill surface." The primary threat to the health of nearby residents, the report stated, "are the respiratory irritants (both chemicals and smoke) generated by the subterranean fire."
At the time of the study in 1997, air monitoring at the landfill found a high level of phosgene and mercury vapor. High levels of phosgene cause respiratory illness and can lead to severe edema. Mercury vapor is known to be extremely irritating to the lungs, and high concentrations may lead to pneumonitis, bronchitis, and bronchiolitis. Chronic intoxication from prolonged exposure to mercury vapor can lead to loss of concentration, depression, headaches, fatigue, weakness, memory loss, drowsiness, insomnia and muscular tremors.
The study recommended the V.I. government, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, take the following steps:
– Extinguish the fires.
– Conduct air sampling off-site.
– Restrict access to the landfill.
– Install diversion valves or roof washers in nearby homes to prevent chemicals from entering cisterns.
– Regularly flush out sediment and sludge in cisterns.
– Provide health education to the community.
– Conduct sediment sampling in the protected Mangrove Lagoon.
Neither the V.I. government nor the EPA has taken any of these steps, except for restricting who goes into the landfill and controlling the fires by ensuring garbage is covered. And there are conflicting reports on whether the underground fires have been completely extinguished. The residents have taken the initiative and stepped up maintenance on their household cisterns, but they say they have received no help or assistance from any government agency.
Jim Casey, EPAs local representative, said the local government has taken steps to comply with federal mandates in the last few years, and the result has been a decrease in fires and more controlled management of the landfill. As far as the nearby residents, Casey said both the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances "are working together with the Bovoni community on a tangible plan of environmental awareness and training."
Yet members of the Bovoni Homeowners Association say they have not been contacted about such a plan and, in fact, have been trying for more than a year to set up an educational program with EPA to no avail.
"Weve been trying to have Jim Casey come out here and talk to us, but havent had any success," Rivera said. She said thats why the association contacted the Agency for Toxic Substances last fall and talked with officials in a conference call in October 2003. That call included Casey and a representative of the local Health Department. At the end of the call, both the EPA and the Health Department agreed to distribute a health survey to Bovoni homeowners and to contact local doctors and clinics in St. Thomas. None of that has been done.
Rivera said the association asked for help from the federal government after repeated requests for assistance went ignored by the local government.
"That dump has been here for more than 25 years, and since the beginning, when they told us it would be temporary until they could find a permanent location, weve been getting promises and promises," she said. "We were promised the tires would be shredded over a year ago when the V.I. government told us they would be getting a contract they keep delaying that. The same [story] with the vehicles, with that program on hold and more cars pile up closer to the main road. Nothing has been constructed, not even the fence they promised years ago. Only in the last year or so have the batteries been removed. So its been almost 30 years, and only that has been done nothing else. The landfill only gets worse."
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