The V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources intends to file a notice of violation against the two local rum distilleries, Diageo USVI Inc. and Cruzan VIRIL Ltd., to mitigate a rum fungus affecting several neighborhoods, DPNR Commissioner-designee Dawn Henry told a group of citizens Thursday night at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Henry said that after interviewing residents and inspecting the sites, DPNR determined the rum fungus is present in Estates Cane Carlton, Williams Delight, Enfield Green and Mt. Pleasant and complaints have been filed.
“We are here today because we are going to take enforcement action,” she said, adding the issues discussed Thursday will be included.
Once the violation notice has been filed, the companies will be compelled to send a response with a plan to address the problem, Henry said. After DPNR approves the plan, Diageo and Cruzan will implement it.
The purpose of Thursday’s forum was to allow residents to testify about their experiences with the black substance found on roofs, street signs, vegetation, walls and cisterns. DPNR will study the impact and the extent of the fungus and “order certain corrective actions by the distilleries,” Henry said.
Henry said she told senators in a June 3 legislative hearing her department will deal with the issue “head on.”
A major complaint of the dozen or so testifiers Thursday was that vegetables and fruit trees are not producing as expected.
Several people asked if there was a health hazard, but Henry said she doesn’t know.
“We’re here to address how we can clean the environment,” she said.
Andrew Romain of Estate Diamond showed the audience coconuts, soursop, oranges and limes grown on his property – shriveled with black patches on the skin. Romain said there also is a black substance on his porch and roof.
Black stained walls, roofs and cisterns were another common complaint expressed by those in the audience. Emma Christopher, who lives in Williams Delight, said her cistern was cleaned after the Hovensa refinery closed in 2012 and said the black substance is running off her roof into the cistern. She asked if it is a health hazard.
Augustin Tommy, also a resident of Williams Delight, testified his fruit trees are discolored and stunted and that he gets a rash from bathing in his cistern water.
Several residents said they noticed the black, moldy covering only since the Diageo plant opened.
Virgil Williams, a 40-year resident of Williams Delight, said he would not have reinstalled the galvanized roof after Hurricane Hugo if it had been covered in black like it is now. He also said his fruit trees are not bearing fruit and are dying.
Claire Roker, who worked at Cruzan Rum in the 1980s, said she also only noticed black mold since Diageo opened its distillery.
Clefryn De Lande agreed, saying his fruit is black-skinned and smaller than usual.
Samantha Prentiss attended the meeting on behalf of Sen. Kurt Vialet. She said the senator is drafting legislation compelling the distilleries to use regenerative thermal oxidizers or filters.
The rum fungus is formed by evaporation from barreled rum, according to experts.
Two testifiers cautioned about incorrectly identifying black rum fungus. Ken Haines, formerly an environmental inspector for Hovensa and member of the St. Croix Environmental Association, said it takes a microscope to distinguish rum fungus from blue-green algae that is black when it dries.
The algae, covering sidewalks and gutters, can be cleaned with bleach, he said.
“Be very careful not to conclude it’s black fungus” because the blue-green fungus is “ubiquitous,” he said.
Adelbert Bryan, a former senator who owns property in Smithfield and Lower Love, said his mango and soursop trees are suffering. Bryan said he learned recently about a citrus disease going around that may be mistaken for rum fungus.
The audience questioned Henry about taking action to help those affected. She said she wants to see positive change but the community needs to “do a shift” and participate in cleaning up the environment.
Residents who wish to register their complaints before legal notice is sent to the rum companies and/or have their property inspected should email Verline Marcellin at [email protected] or call 340-773-1082.
“We expect enforcement action in three weeks,” Henry said. After the process, remediation will begin.