A second day of field investigations continued at Central High School on Thursday as officials struggle to find the source of a foul odor that has closed the campus since Tuesday afternoon, an odor which officials now say has been reported periodically in the surrounding neighborhood.
The most recent incident on Tuesday sent more than 35 students and one adult to the Gov. Juan F. Luis Memorial Hospital from the ill effects of inhaling the unidentified odor. According to Alicia V. Barnes, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, there have been intermittent reports from residents in a few communities across St. Croix of the presence of the foul odor.
Barnes said investigators on the campus have inspected lines and manholes to determine if the school’s sewage system was contributing to the presence of the foul odor. At the same time, a team of officials from DPNR and other agencies made an unannounced visit to Hovensa, where tank-cleaning operations have been under way for some time.
“HOVENSA has the appropriate permits to carry out this work," Barnes said in an update issued Thursday by Government House.
Barnes also said the government has requested air-monitoring assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We are seeking additional resources to conduct further air monitoring and site investigations,” she said.
A team of EPA officials with additional equipment should arrive on island by the weekend and begin the air quality monitoring by the first part of next week, according to Barnes. The testing may also expand to residential areas on either side of the CHS campus.
Until the air testing begins, there will be a focus on the underground infrastructure of Central High to determine if there are any pipelines that are a contributing factor to this odor, and officials will review weather conditions to determine wind patterns, changes to the prevailing winds and atmospheric conditions.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. was joined by Barnes, Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, VITEMA Director Elton Lewis, and officials from the V.I. Waste Management Authority, the EPA, OSHA and other government agencies at a meeting Thursday afternoon for an update on the ongoing effort.
“Our goal is to get to the bottom of what is causing this odor and addressing it," the governor said. "I am extremely concerned about the effect that this odor has on the students, faculty and staff at Central High and residents of the surrounding communities. I can assure everyone that until we have a better idea of what this odor is and what is causing it, we will not reopen Central High School – if that means the school remaining closed beyond Monday, we will make that decision.”
DeJongh also said that Frett-Gregory and her team are searching for options to resume classroom operations for the CHS students while the investigation is under way. Once finalized, those decisions will be made public as well, he said.
“I thank the community for its patience as we work on many levels to address this health concern on St. Croix,” deJongh said.