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Sahara Dust and Other Pollutants Subjects of Conference

Nov. 28, 2005 – The year 2005 was the worst ever for Sahara dust, U.S. Geological Survey coral reef ecologist Ginger Garrison said Monday as the 9th annual Non-point Source Pollution Conference kicked off at the Westin Resort and Villas. It runs until Wednesday with about 180 people registered for the event.
"Virgin Islands National Park is the dustiest in the national park system," she said.
Garrison, the keynote speaker, said that on July 26, the dust extended all the way from West Africa to the Caribbean and even as far as Florida. She said the dust's composition has changed in recent years thanks to the burning of plastics and tile, the manufacture of plastics starting in the 1990s and the use of pesticides.
Garrison said she and other scientists are studying what arrives with the dust. She said that studies show that 150 pounds of iron per year are deposited along with the dust in the Virgin Islands.
"And African desert locusts came across to Antigua, Barbados and Trinidad," she said.
She suggested this if this tiny organism could make it all the way across the Atlantic, other problematic materials could do the same.
She said that studies in Barbados showed that the number of children admitted to the emergency room for asthma problems went up when the Saharan dust was present. She also said that inhaled particles of the dust are known to thicken blood.
"Does this cause an increase in strokes and heart attacks?" she asked, inferring that no conclusion has been reached on this matter.
Garrison noted that pollution from the northeast United States makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, where it finds its way south to Africa. It then heads westward across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean.
She said scientists are also studying the link between the Saharan dust, which clouded skies numerous times throughout the past summer, and coral diseases. She said that pathogens that cause sea fan disease were found on St. John during dust events.
And she said that toxicology studies done on dust collected in the Virgin Islands show that Saharan dust is highly toxic to lab rats.
She said scientists estimate that about 25 percent of the world's coral reefs are lost or seriously damaged.
"Coral reefs worldwide are in decline," she said.
She said that between 1979 and 1981, 95 percent of the elkhorn coral in the Caribbean died. In 1983 and 1984, 97 percent of the sea urchins died. She said causes were never identified in either of these cases.
Showing a slide that indicated degree of sediment, she said that tests found sediment at Coral Bay, Cruz Bay, Fish Bay, and Haulover Bay. The slide of the sediment filtered from Haulover Bay was the darkest, meaning it had the most sediment.
In his welcoming remarks, Planning Commissioner Dean C. Plaskett pointed out that some of the territory's coastal areas are exempt for the Coastal Zone Management Act. The 1978 act imposes more stringent conditions on shoreline development than for development that is more inland.
"It was a political thing. Various special interest people who owned property were able to lobby their senators to exclude their property," he said.
He said the situation exists on all three islands. The quirk in the CZM law has recently become an issue on St. John. Many residents are upset that the Grande Bay Resort was allowed to be built right across from the beach in Cruz Bay. It is in an area exempt from the CZM Act.
"But Grande Bay is not the villain," Sen. Craig Barshinger said in his remarks.
He said those who passed the CZM Act in 1978 are the villains. He said a bill now in the works would include the entire islands in the CZM laws, not just most of the coastal land.
"It might be a difficult battle," he acknowledged.
Barshinger also pointed out the difficulty many people have in understanding the non-point source concept. While overflowing sewage treatment plants are considered source point pollution, things like leaking septic tanks and the brown sediment that runs down the hills when it rains are non-point source pollution.
"It's like creeping or insidious pollution," he said.
Barshinger observed that telling those at the conference, who are mainly people with an interest in the subject, was like preaching to the choir.
Henry H. Smith, vice-provost for research and public service at the University of the Virgin Islands, pointed out that reaching those who pollute is a major problem. He called on those at the conference to work hard to collaborate with those causing pollution problems.

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