It’s called "the angel’s cut," but there could be the devil to pay as officials move to curtail the release of ethanol that is a byproduct of rum distillation and storage on St. Croix.
At a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Health, Hospital and Human Services Committee, lawmakers and officials said they were ready to begin enforcement action against Diageo and Cruzan Rum to force the two companies to curtail the release of ethanol from their rum storage facilities and help remediate damage caused an unsightly fungus to grow in surrounding neighborhoods. Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner designate Dawn Henry said the agency was on a 45-day timeline to began the action.
The panel heard more than six hours of testimony on two environmental issues facing St. Croix, the rum fungus and the "red mud" cleanup of aluminum refining operations on the south coast of the island.
Henry told senators the first phase of the red mud cleanup is due to be completed by October.
Rum fungus, known by the scientific name Baudoinia compniacensis and a host of less complimentary names, including whisky fungus and black sooty mold, grows when ethanol is released into the air, mostly during the storage of the liquor in barrels. The ethanol evaporates through the barrel and gives that distinctive aroma known as the angel’s share, or the angel’s cut.
That ethanol mixes in the air with the fungi spores providing the fuel for its growth. And whether the distillery is making Scotch in Scotland, or brandy in France or California, bourbon in Kentucky or rum in the Caribbean, that fungus spread, draping everything in long stains of black growth.
The rum fungus problem is the focus of a class action lawsuit against the two distilleries, which is why the daylong hearing heard hours of testimony from lawyers, health and environment officials and residents, but very little from the rum producers themselves.
Attorney Joel Holt, who represents Diageo, read a joint statement for both his client and Cruzan Rum, saying the companies have sought to cooperate with DPNR and noted the long history of rum production on the island. Holt emphasized the important role the distilleries play in the island economy, supporting more than 2,500 jobs.
Holt also accused the attorney for the plaintiffs of trying to "stir up panic" in the community.
But because of the lawsuit, Holt said, he couldn’t discuss details of the ongoing situation.
"Because of the lawsuit, I would rather make my response in the framework of the lawsuit, and I must regretfully decline to answer any questions," he said.
That did not hinder other participants, who testified at length to the problem of the black fungus that grows on houses, fences, signs, foliage, and even on fruit trees and their fruit.
Attorney Vincent Colianni, who represents the plaintiffs in the class action suit against the companies, presented testimony from Kentucky lawyer William F. McMurry, who is the lead attorney both in the Diageo/Cruzan suit and a similar suit in Kentucky against bourbon producers. The testimony detailed the history of the fungus on St. Croix and the status of the lawsuit, which was field in 2013.
Henry said DPNR has received 30 complaints from residents and in 2013 took samples at the properties that confirmed the presence of the fungus. While the emissions do not reach threshold level to require action by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Henry said they do constitute a nuisance under V.I. law.
After consulting with Cruzan and Diageo, DPNR issued a letter July 8, 2013, to both companies saying the agency determined that in lieu of taking enforcement action at that time, it requested the companies to take steps to abate the emissions and to pay for half of the study and cleanup operations. There was no response to that offer, she said.
Sen. Tregenza Roach said that’s where the territory "dropped the ball" and encouraged Henry to proceed.
Henry said she expects to begin enforcement actions against the two companies within 45 days.
Dr. Marc Jerome of the Department of Health said there is little evidence that exposure to the fungus causes a health risk, and local environmental consultant Paul Chakroff noted that the lawsuit itself does not allege health damage, but instead seeks redress of property damage.
Colianni said just because they have not cited health risks in the suit doesn’t mean they don’t believe there is such a risk.
"It’s not because we don’t believe there may be adverse health consequences," he said. "We did not bring those claims because at the moment we don’t have the scientific studies to get over the legal hurdles to arguing those issues. But do not infer that we don’t believe it."
Sen. Sammuel Sanes asked Jerome if any study had been done on the health effects of using the strong cleaning products needed to remove the fungal staining. When the doctor replied no, Sanes asked him to gather that data and report back.
The hearing in the Fritz E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room on St. Croix was an informational session and no action was taken on the rum fungus.
The senators also heard testimony on the red mud cleanup in the site of former Alumina refinery on the south coast of St. Croix.
The distinctive red mud that stained the site for decades was the remnants of the refining of bauxite ore into aluminum. The site is divided into two sections. Section A is the responsibility of St. Croix Aluminum, and the smaller parcel, Section B, is the responsibility of Lockheed Martin Corp.
According to Henry, the work on Section B is still in the investigatory stage, in which the contractors are studying the site and determining how to approach stabilizing, contouring and covering the tailings, as well as making sure the groundwater is uncontaminated.
On Section A, work is nearing completion, she said, and should be done by October. The original finish date was in June, but the work was delayed when DPNR received complaints that dust blowing from the site was infiltrating nearby neighborhoods. The contractor had to device a system that allowed material to be moved on the site without stirring up dust.
The work to stop the dust from the caliche, a naturally occurring mineral of calcium carbonate abundant on St. Croix that acts as a cement, and is being used to cap the remaining tailings.
The site will then be planted with natural vegetation that doesn’t require extensive watering, mowing or maintenance, Henry said.