June 10, 2004 – Water Island got a clean bill of health on Thursday. After years of research, digging, inspecting and analysis, representatives of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the island is free of any taint from chemical experiments conducted there more than 50 years ago.
Robert Bridgers, Army Corps defense environmental restoration program manager, has overseen the testing at old Fort Segarra on Water Island. Speaking at the first of two Thursday meetings, he gave the final thumbs-up on the extensive testing results.
The all-clear is the final step necessary for Interior to turn over to the V.I. government the remaining 200 acres that are still federal property. Water Island occupies about 500 acres altogether. A meeting on the island Thursday evening with homeowners was to address concerns and questions they might about the transfer, as well as to recap Thursday morning's presentations.
For more than 12 years, Bridgers has overseen the environmental investigation and chemical residue testing at and around Fort Segarra. The fortification was built at the southern tip of the island toward the end of World War II as a coastal defense installation, with guns, bunkers, watchtowers and other military facilities.
However, construction was halted at the end of the war, and the property was declared excess. From 1948 to 1950, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps used it for testing and storage of chemical munitions as part of a tropical test program. The program ended in 1950, and in 1952 the Army transferred ownership of the island to the Interior Department.
Eight test areas were identified, although documentation indicates only seven tests were performed. According to historical documents, the only matériel not accounted for consisted of four 500-pound bombs, which may have been disposed of on site.
All Army matériel was to have been removed before Water Island was turned over to Interior in 1952. But in the mid-'60s developers of the Water Isle Hotel found two devices filled with cyanogen chloride, which were subsequently removed by Army personnel.
Testing Has Gone on for a Decade
Extensive testing for chemical agents and ordnance has been conducted over the last decade. The Army and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brought in Interior Department chemists to perform hazardous materials testing. The Army tests for munitions and chemical substances; Interior tests for hazardous waste.
Margaret Lake, Interior Bureau of Reclamation chemist, has supervised the investigation for about the last four years. She said even though the Water Island scored 11 on the federal Hazard Ranking System, well below the mandated safe level, the EPA required the site to be tested anyway, because of the past Army use.
Asbestos was the only toxic agent found — in the cement used to build a water catchment basin. The material is being hauled away to a landfill in Georgia. The whole undertaking was very expensive, Lake said, while declining to give a dollar figure.
Lake said she enjoys research. "About 50 percent of chemists are women, who are better suited to the detailed work," she said. "You can't imagine the huge data base we work with. You have to sort everything out and see what raises a flag."
She has worked on the Water Island investigation for the last four years, digging up soil samples and analyzing them.
Bridgers said samples are taken from a number of test sites and sent to two separate laboratories for analysis because some of the chemical traces sought are measured in parts per million and others are by parts per billion.
He expressed confidence Thursday that no other chemicals will be found, noting what he called an "extensive archival research" commissioned from the Army Corps St. Louis district. "As a result of that much, much more extensive and inclusive documentation," he said, "we've got a better idea and better understanding now that the Army did not leave any items there unaccounted for, although for many years there was some speculation."
Container, Bomb Casing Yet to Be Removed
A container that might have been used to store chemical agents was found on the surface at the Flamingo Bay landfill. And a 500-pound bomb casing was found at the waterline adjacent to the landfill's deep-water dock. Both objects are to be removed before the final transfer papers are signed.
According to resident Collette Monroe, past president of the Water Island Civic Association, relatives of the late, well-known Water Islander Walter Phillips have confirmed that the concrete mooring he used was an empty cement-filled bomb.
Furthermore, Monroe said, "years ago, when residents had to scrounge for things, they would cut the tops off military canisters and use them for ashtrays. They made use of the old Army articles."
Army and Interior officials say now that should any chemicals, ordnance or suspicious material turn up in the future, their agencies will still be responsible for investigating and, if necessary, disposing of the materials. "We can never walk away," John Seymour, an attorney with Interior's Office of Solicitor, said.
Bridgers said the Army Corps will post signs at both Water Island docks, along with literature, advising residents and visitors of proper procedures, should anything suspicious be found. He said he hasn't settled yet on the wording for the signs. "We don't want to scare off tourists or prospective property owners," he said. "We would probably use a historical perspective."
Bridgers said the complete report of the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation investigation is available on St. Thomas at the Enid M. Baa Library and the University of the Virgin Islands library.
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