St. Croix Central High shut down for the day and sent students home Tuesday afternoon after a foul, choking chemical odor swept across the campus before noon, causing a wave of teary, burning eyes, headaches and some nausea.
At 1 p.m., St. Croix District Superintendent of Schools Gary Molloy announced the immediate dismissal of Central High students with an emailed statement to the press and public saying the school was being closed "in the interest of safety."
Representatives from the departments of Planning and Natural Resources and Health, as well Hovensa, were on the Central High campus assessing the situation, Molloy said.
"There is a presence of a strong odor, but the cause has not yet been determined. We hope to have an update later today on the findings so that we can make a determination about tomorrow’s schedule," he said.
"It started this morning around 11:05," said Sol Serrano, a Central High junior. "It stung the eyes. People were getting sick and coughing," she said.
"It was a lot worse back in December," said senior Kevin Thomas, referring to Dec. 9 when a cloud of sulfurous gas wafted through the campus and a number of students and staff went to the hospital complaining of dizziness and nausea. The school was closed for the day.
Thomas added that in December the gas smelled like sulfur, but Tuesday’s gas had more of a "chemical" smell.
There was no detectable odor remaining on the school campus as of 2:15 p.m. At about 2 p.m. the air around the Melvin Evans Highway across from Diageo had a pungent, almost choking, chemical aroma unfamiliar to this reporter.
There was a light breeze coming from the northeast at the time, making it unclear whether the odor emanated from the distillery or from Hovensa, a short distance to the east.
The winds were variable, largely coming from the northeast at the time, which would in principle be expected to blow any emissions off shore and westward, if the winds were constant and did not shift direction briefly.
An hour later, the smell had subsided to tolerable levels but was still pungent at the St. Croix Renaissance entrance from the highway.
Assistant Principal Vincent Gordon confirmed the students’ account, saying the fumes burned the eyes and had more of a chemical smell. Roughly three or four students called their parents and went home before the decision was made to close the school, and a similar number of staffers were affected, he said.
"There were probably a few more that we don’t know about because the school closed," he said. "Hovensa did testing but did not find anything, so DPNR is going to check with Diageo."
Central High classes are scheduled to resume Wednesday, Gordon said.
"At this time, the source of the foul odor at Central High School has not yet been determined," DPNR Spokesman Jamal Nielsen wrote in response to an email request for details of its assessment of the situation.
Later, Nielsen issued a statement saying the division of Environmental Protection performed field assessments and collected air samples which will be sent to the Eastern Research Group in North Carolina for analysis.
"DPNR has received no reports of incidents at the Hovensa Refinery or at the Diageo Distillery," Nielsen wrote. "Once the results from the air testing are completed, DPNR will provide that information to the community."