A news release sent out Wednesday announcing an agreement between the operator of the shuttered Caneel Bay Resort and the Department of the Interior drew a mixed reaction on St. John.
Wednesday’s announcement said that CBI Acquisitions, which has operated the resort since 2003, has agreed to move forward with the next phase of environmental site assessments at the 170-acre resort. The Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park has accused CBIA of stalling on further testing of hazardous waste sites found on the property which were reported to the National Park Service and Interior Department in 2012, 2014 and 2017.
The press release also announced that CBIA and the Interior Department were moving forward with negotiations toward a long-term, non-competitive lease for Caneel Bay Resort, something that has been in the works since 2010.
(The press release refers to CBIA by its affiliate’s name – EHI Acquisitions.)
On social media, the response to the news on St. John was fairly consistent.
“Yes to environmental cleanup, FINALLY, but no to ‘non-competitive lease,’” wrote Beverly Lockett on Facebook after the news release was posted by St. John Administrator Shikima Jones-Sprauve.
Todd Sampsell, president of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, said, “We’ve been asking the National Park Service to move on a complete assessment and set a path forward for clean up and remediation, so we’re thrilled about that, but we’re anxious to see the results.”
Sampsell said he was confident that the National Park Service, which owns the land on which the resort was built, will abide by federal regulations to protect the natural resources.
However, David DiGiacomo, an attorney who has prepared a lawsuit to force CBIA and the Interior Department to reckon with the contamination, was less optimistic.
“I have no confidence that an agency that failed to supervise (Caneel Bay) for the past half century is going to address the issue,” DiGiacomo said. “There’s a whole, very complicated process. You don’t just scrape a little dirt and say, ‘It’s done.’ A thorough environmental evaluation could require a year or two of study.”
DiGiacomo said he also received a letter informing him of the agreement between CBIA and the Interior Department, but it did not mention certain sites that he considered major concerns, including a site near the water catchment area where barrels of DDT were left to deteriorate. Proper remediation might include the introduction of bacteria to break down the toxic carbon chains, a process that would require monitoring over a long period of time, he said.
DiGiacomo said the question of whether CBIA should be awarded a 40-year non-competitive lease on the property when its current agreement expires in 2023 has been more controversial.
“The hope is that the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior will come back to the community of St. John and say, ‘Here’s what we found (about the contamination,) and here are our alternatives for future operations of the resort,” said Sampsell.
He said circumstances were quite different in 2010 when legislation was passed to give CBIA a 40-year lease.
“The resort was intact back then. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, CBIA collected insurance money; that brings up other questions: Does the Dept. of the Interior hold CBIA accountable? Will the insurance money be invested and the contamination cleaned up? We feel it’s important to get the clean-up done before we move forward on a 40-year agreement.”
Caneel Bay Resort has operated under a unique agreement with the National Park Service known as a Retained Use Estate. Laurance Rockefeller, who donated much of the land to create the Virgin Island National Park, deeded the 170-acre property to the National Park Service in 1983. The Retained Use Estate allowed the resort operator – currently CBIA – to manage the property but pay no rent with the understanding that when the agreement expires in 2023, the entire property reverts to the federal government.
Sampsell explained that the expiration of the RUE was intended to give the Park Service more control over the natural and cultural resources as well as potentially generate revenues for the benefit of the park.
The 2010 legislation allowing CBIA to enter into a non-competitive lease does not say that the Department of the Interior ‘has’ to enter into an agreement, Sampsell said. “It says that they ‘may’ enter ‘If the Secretary determines that the long- term benefit to the park would be greater by entering into a lease with the owner of the retained use estate than by authorizing a concession contract upon the termination of the retained use estate.’”
Past difficulties during negotiations between CBIA and the National Park Service, and the condition of the property since Hurricane Irma struck in 2017 have changed the outlook for the resort.
“We know there are parties interested in the future of Caneel Bay,” said Sampsell. “There’s a broader suite of options.”