Crucians living near Diageo complain of distillery's stench


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ST. CROIX - Residents of the neighborhoods near the Diageo rum distillery gathered Wednesday evening to voice concerns about the stench they said they often smell coming from the distillery.

"We are sick and tired of dealing with this problem," said Eddie Ortiz, who with his wife owns El Flamboyant, the restaurant near Diageo where the meeting took place.

Ortiz said that residents of Estate Profit and surrounding areas have raised concerns about the stink and whether it could affect their health multiple times to the government and Diageo officials, and they said they are tired of what they see as a lack of action.

Those invited to Wednesday's meeting included residents, government officials and Diageo USVI officials, according to Ortiz.

However, no one from Diageo was there.

Ortiz said he had gotten a call late Wednesday afternoon, saying that no one from the distillery would attend the meeting. According to Ortiz, no explanation was given.

The Daily News was unable to contact Diageo officials Wednesday night.

Ortiz said that residents have expressed concerns about the stink to Diageo officials in the past.

"Diageo are not good neighbors any more," he said, contending that the company has said it was correcting the problems that caused the smell, but the smell continues.

Ortiz said he is pro-business, but "we sick and tired of complaining and they never fulfilling their promises."

The neighborhood group also has spoken with the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources and other government officials about the problem in the past, according to Ortiz.

Herminio Torres, president of the Profit Action Group, said he is trying to get some resolution to the odor problem.

"We are trying to resolve this problem with Diageo and the community in a way we don't break the ties between the community and the distillery," he said.

Elinelsha Navarro, who lives in Harvey housing community, said her concern is her kids.

"They was born in Harvey, smelling Hess and Vialco and now Diageo," she said. "Every day they smell this. My daughter gets migraines. I am very nervous. It's terrible. It's tiring. I think it's enough. It should stop."

Although a relatively small group of about 20 to 25 people attended the meeting, resident after resident stood up and complained about the odor to the public officials who were there.

Government officials at the meeting included Health Commissioner Darice Plaskett, St. Croix Administrator Dodson James, and Senators Judi Buckley, Diane Capehart, Sammuel Sanes and Kenneth Gittens.

Organizers said that DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes had been invited, but she was not there.

The smell that residents described was not at all apparent at El Flamboyant on Wednesday evening.

Resident Wilfredo Quinones said that where and how bad the stink is all depends on which way the breeze is blowing.

"I have a great-granddaughter I am raising," he said. "She's asthmatic. I had to take her to the Frederiksted clinic, thinking it was the food she eat, but they told me 'No, it's the environment.' "

According to Quinones, there are more people concerned about the smell than the group who showed up Wednesday night.

"It's a lot of people with this concern," he said. "It's not we alone."

Quinones said he hopes residents can come together and get something done.

Carmen Villegas, who is Ortiz's wife, said she has been to the Emergency Room twice.

"I get dizzy. I get sick from the smell," she said. "Health is very special, and you need your health."

She sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night coughing, she said.

"I can't deal with it no more," she said. "It's either we do something about it or we have to move from here."

Jesús Felix Ortiz said that he thinks Diageo never should have been given the permit to build where it did, so close to peoples' homes.

Some residents who spoke said the smell is worse at certain times of the day or night. Some raised the question of whether it is making them sick.

Torres asked Plaskett whether breathing whatever it is that is causing the odor is a health concern.

Plaskett said the Health Department would take the statements from Wednesday's meeting as "an official complaint" and would follow up with Diageo about it and find out whether there are emissions.

She said that because she does not know what is causing the smell, she could not speak about whether there are health concerns.

However, she also said that DPNR - not Health - is in charge of air emissions and air testing.

Ortiz said residents have talked to government officials before.

"I call you all here tonight because I don't want sweet talk," he said. "I want action."

James said he will take the concerns back to Gov. John deJongh Jr.

The senators also said they would follow up.

C. Navarro, who said she came to the meeting to support her neighbors even though the smell isn't a problem where she lives, said the reason the turn-out was relatively low is because area residents are tired of voicing their concerns and complaining, then seeing nothing being done.

"The next day, it's the same smell," she said.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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