Noxious fumes closed St. Croix Central High School for the third day in a row Thursday—and this time nearby Charles H. Emanuel Elementary School and John H. Woodson Junior High School were also affected and closed for the day.
The Education Department decided to close all three schools Friday as well after a late afternoon meeting between Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry and Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes, according to a joint multi-agency statement issued shortly after 9 p.m. Thursday.
Residents smelled chemical fumes in the air throughout the mid-island area for part of the day, although there were no reports of other businesses or offices closing in response. At first, Woodson experienced a milder, lingering odor, and officials thought it might be able to remain open, St. Croix Superintendent of Schools Gary Molloy said in a statement.
"But as time progressed the smell became unbearable, and the decision was made to dismiss the students and staff to ensure their safety. Parents were called for those students displaying a more urgent need,” Molloy said.
At Central, 50 adults and 39 students complained of irritation and other symptoms of exposure, while Charles Emanuel saw 13 students and nine adults, Health Department Spokeswoman Eunice Bedminster said Thursday evening. Numbers from Woodson were not yet available, she said.
A U.S. Coast Guard Team working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency collected air quality samples from Central each day and initial readings Wednesday at Central showed very low concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a colorless gas with a pungent odor, according to a joint statement from V.I. government regulatory agencies Wednesday. The level of SO2 detected was too low to pose a public health threat, both Health and DPNR officials said.
According to Health, the origin of the odor and the SO2 have yet to be determined. The nearby Hovensa oil refinery produces SO2 as a byproduct of the refining process and has released it in the area on prior occasions, including an incident last December.
Both the Hovensa Refinery and Diageo distillery, which are near Central High School and Charles Emanuel Elementary School, have indicated there have been no releases at their plants.
On Thursday, DPNR officials said that based on a process of elimination and the EPA sulfur dioxide field readings, DPNR is now focusing its investigation on Hovensa.
Barnes and DPNR’s air quality management staff are scheduled to meet with Hovensa’s environmental and operational staff Friday morning in an effort to finally determine the source of the odor, according to the joint statement.
The V.I. Health Department has issued a statement advising residents with compromised immune systems to stay indoors and avoid affected areas.
The department has seen an increase in complaints about foul odors, skin irritation, itchy eyes and nausea; and the department is advising residents who experience significant distressing symptoms to seek medical care.
Health officials remain in contact with its partner agency, the Poison Control Center of Jacksonville, Fla., as well as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Both agencies advise those who have previously experienced symptoms to try to avoid re-exposure.