The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a statement Friday afternoon saying incineration of vegetative debris is about to begin.
The statement comes with the logos of FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Authority and Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands but gives FEMA as the contact for further information.
The release makes no mention of recent legislation by the V.I. Legislature to ban large-scale burning of vegetative debris. About 35 percent of the debris will be burned via air curtain incineration, a method that reduces smoke and particulate air pollution, according to the statement.
The V.I. Legislature approved the ban Dec. 1. Gov. Kenneth Mapp has not yet signed or vetoed the measure, but issued a statement saying burning of some debris is necessary. Environmental groups and others raised concerns about the health impacts of large-scale incineration after Mapp suggested at a news conference that he might authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to begin incineration.
Senators amended the bill to allow individual property owners to burn material on their own properties, if they got a burn permit first. Mapp cited the ability of private property owners to openly burn material as a flaw in the legislation. He also said the territory had no choice but to burn some of the material because it lacks the money to pay for other disposal methods before a March 20 cut-off date for federal help.
After Mapp indicated burning would proceed, Senate President Myron Jackson issued a statement saying if Mapp vetoed the ban, he would seek a veto override. Under the Revised Organic Act of 1954, the federal law that acts as a V.I. constitution until such a time as the territory enacts one of its own that complies with federal law, the governor must “within 10 days” not counting Sundays, sign or veto a bill and return it to the Legislature, or it becomes law automatically. Since the bill was approved Dec. 1, Mapp has until Tuesday, Dec.12 to veto it or it is enacted automatically.
FEMA spokesman Don Caetano said Friday the Stafford Act, the federal law governing most of the disaster relief operations, requires them to follow the lead state and territorial governors.
“We take our marching orders from the governor when it comes to the Stafford Act,” Caetano said. He referred questions about the recent V.I. law to the Office of the Governor. An 8 p.m. call to Mapp spokesperson Sam Carrion for clarification had not been returned as of 9 p.m. Friday.
“To safely and quickly rid the islands of vegetative debris – and drive forward the hurricane recovery effort – a method of burning this debris called “air curtain incineration” (ACI) is scheduled to begin soon in St. Croix and St. Thomas,” according to the statement.
It asserts a joint Debris Task Force of territorial and federal agencies, including VITEMA, the Department of Public Works, Waste Management Authority, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, FEMA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA was formed in the wake of the disaster declarations to develop strategies and courses of action for ridding the islands of hurricane debris.
They say they looked at three methods of reducing vegetative debris across the territory – composting, chipping and ACI – and the U.S. Virgin Islands government chose air curtain incineration to dispose of up to 35 percent of vegetative debris.
It said the task force did not consider the open burn method due to human health and environmental concerns and that ACI is a pollution-controlling device that operates by forcefully projecting a curtain of air across an open, integrated combustion chamber.
“The curtain has the same effect as a lid, trapping most particulates such as smoke and embers inside. Because air is forced into the chamber, an extremely high temperature is created. Particulates are recirculated into the fire, burning them longer, and further reducing emissions to levels well below what would normally be released by open burning. This results in a much faster and cleaner burn,” FEMA officials assert in the statement.
Judith Enck, the former regional administrator for EPA, was among those who disputed the safety and cleanliness of the process when the Legislature considered the ban.
According to FEMA, the air curtain method has been used to reduce storm debris in the aftermaths of major hurricanes, and is also regularly used by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce vegetative material. The Army Corps of Engineers will provide management and oversight of the burning process, officials said.
The statement suggests there will be strong oversight of air quality.
“The EPA will continually monitor air quality for fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter throughout ACI operations. Knowing the particulate levels while vegetation is being burned can help (the Corps of Engineers) operate the air curtain burner in a way that minimizes air emissions. If particulate matter goes above the acceptable level of EPA’s health-based 24 hour air quality standard for fine particles of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, the ACI operator will decrease the amount of vegetation being incinerated or stop the operation until concentrations return to acceptable levels,” the statement asserted.