26 Central High staff members sign out sick Friday, citing foul odor

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ST. CROIX - It is still a mystery of what caused dozens of teachers at Central High School to sign out sick on Friday, citing illness brought on by a foul odor in the air, although officials said they could not detect anything.

V.I. Education spokeswoman Ananta Pancham said Friday that Education officials were notified of a foul odor at the school within the first few hours of classes. Several students and staff at the school complained about the smell and reported symptoms of nausea to the school's main office, Pancham said.

The school's principal, Janasse Sinclair, immediately called in officials from the V.I. Health Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to investigate the odor and the cause, while students were contained within the buildings, according to Pancham.

Officials from HOVENSA and the government agencies walked the campus and the surrounding areas trying to detect the odor and the source, but said they determined that there were no odors detected and no dangerous chemicals were in the air, she said.

"At this point, the all clear was given to continue with classes, as no source of any foul odor had been identified," Pancham said.

She said that less than an hour later, the situation changed as about 26 staff members signed out sick for the day, citing the odor as the cause of their illness.

At that time, the Education Department took precautionary measures and dismissed classes for the day, Pancham said.

School administrators called buses to transport students home, and the department contacted media to spread the word that parents who were able to pick up their children should do so.

On Feb. 28, classes also were suspended after foul odors prompted the decision to close the school and send students home early. More than two years after it stopped refining operations, HOVENSA was the source of that odor, according to a statement issued by DPNR last week.

HOVENSA released a prepared statement late that night apologizing for the incident - which stemmed from a tank cleaning operation - and for any discomfort to people downwind of the facility.

The odor itself was caused by crude oil, HOVENSA spokesman Alex Moorhead said in a written response to a Daily News inquiry.

DPNR last week ordered HOVENSA to cease and desist all tank-cleaning operations and to submit an odor contingency plan to the department for approval.

That order still is in effect, according to DPNR officials.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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