EPA Plans to Repair V.I-Owned Tutu Groundwater Cleaning Machines

Location of the groundwater treatment plant at the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Education Curriculum Center on St. Thomas (File photo provided by the EPA)
Location of the groundwater treatment plant at the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Education Curriculum Center on St. Thomas (File photo provided by the EPA)

Systems to clean contaminated St. Thomas groundwater have been offline since the 2017 storms but the EPA plans to come in and repair them next month. The Tutu Wellfield groundwater cleaning system was set up more than 20 years ago.

A spokesperson for the EPA said an evaluation and repair of a pump and equipment used to treat the water is part of a long-term effort to remove contaminants from the Tutu Wellfield.

The EPA found severe contamination to the groundwater in the area back in 1987, after residents reported a strong petroleum smell coming from water at Tillet Well, a public water supply. EPA found two gas stations and a dry cleaning operation may have been responsible and ESSO and Texaco entered a consent decree to clean it up in 1992.  It is one of nine consent decrees impacting the territory. It has been a Superfund Site since 1995. Arsenic and other metallic contaminants were found, along with petroleum products.

Groundwater cleaning technology was put in place in the late 1990s over the aquifer that supplied most of the water used for residential consumption until dangerous pollutants were detected.

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According to Mary Miers, the agency’s Region Two public information officer, treatment plants were installed and operated by the federal government and handed over to the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources in 2013.

A five-year review of the system’s functionality is scheduled for September, Miers said.

But, she added, what is supposed to be a routine checkup will likely turn into a repair project.

The two major storms of 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, caused a lengthy power outage across St. Thomas. As a result, the pump and treatment stations stopped working. These stations work through a well system that draws polluted water in and puts it through a process that draws off chemicals.

The treated water is then sent back out into the aquifer.

Miers said the contractor hired by DPNR later reported the pumps were rendered inoperable.

“When power was restored to the island in March 2018, the contractor tried to resume operations at the plants, but due to the plants’ inactivity and humid temperatures, the pumps and equipment were deemed dysfunctional. In September, EPA will assess the damages and equipment at the plants, which have been down since the hurricanes hit in 2017,” Miers said.

She added, “EPA will then make repairs to the treatment system and bring them back to operation before turning the plants back to the V.I. DPNR to continue the long-term operation and maintenance.”

Under the pending project, federal inspectors will assess the pump and treatment stations and decide what to do in order to get them back in service. They are also expected to sample 40 monitoring wells for contaminants.

Once repairs are made and pump stations are restored, the systems will return to the management of local operators, the EPA spokesperson said.

Long-term remediation of the wellfield resulted after environmentalists working at the local and federal level answered complaints of a strange odor coming from a public well near Tillett Gardens. An investigation discovered that 108 acres of groundwater was contaminated with chlorinated volatile organic compounds.

An investigation lasting several months led to the closure of 13 commercial and five private wells in the southeastern portion of the island. Because the wells supplied drinking water to most of St. Thomas, the owners of two gas stations, a dry cleaning shop and a T-shirt printing company in the Tutu area were ordered to supply clean drinking water to area residents.

The Tutu Wellfield was placed on a national priorities list for EPA Superfund cleanup sites in 1995. Once the groundwater cleanup is declared complete and the wellfield is restored, the St. Thomas site can be taken off the national priorities list, according to information online.

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