Diageo's leftover molasses is the latest foul odor over St. Croix

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ST. CROIX - As problems with offensive odors persisted during the weekend, the responding government agencies established Unified Command, a gathering of federal and local organizations, to determine the source of the odors that have caused widespread problems on the island for the last week, officials said.

With another oil spill Saturday night at HOVENSA - its second in two days - and a new odor wafting its way over the area during the last few days from Diageo, officials have been more than busy.

During the weekend and continuing Monday, assessment teams made up of personnel from the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the V.I. National Guard fanned out across the islands conducting air-monitoring and field surveys of the most affected areas, according to a Government House statement.

EPA has provided air-monitoring equipment to conduct the monitoring, said DPNR spokesman Jamal Nielsen.

While students at St. Croix Central High School and the residents of the surrounding areas were free of any sulfuric odors Monday - odors DPNR has said most likely came from HOVENSA - they were by no means able to breathe easy.

A new smell worked its way over the area Monday: a pungent odor of decomposing molasses and leftover products from the distillation of rum at the Diageo facility, said Diageo USVI Vice President Dan Kirby.

"It's the vinesse from the bottom of the tank," said Kirby. He described it as "leftover products that comes from the distillation process," which is leftover molasses that has fermented, leftover yeast, ash and dirt.

The by-product is treated with anaerobic digesters in the EQ tank, Kirby said.

Whether the smell was better or worse than the sulfuric smells that hung over the area much of last week depended on who was asked, but Central High Assistant Principal Vincent Gordon Jr. said that, based on the number of students who reported sick to the nurse, "I would say it was worse."

"We had more students sick than last week," he said.

According to Gordon, 70 students and 19 faculty and staff reported symptoms that included vomiting, headaches, burning eyes and itching.

"A number of kids are itching and rashes are breaking out on skin and are itching on students and faculty," he said.

Unlike last week, students were not dismissed early Monday, Gordon said. Some students wore surgical masks to school in an attempt to alleviate symptoms, but Gordon said the nurse told him that might only trap the fumes and not keep them out.

Similar to last week, the odor was foul but not a health risk, officials said.

The V.I. Health Department urged residents with compromised immune systems to stay indoors and use fans to circulate air. If residents feel ill, the department said they should seek medical attention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as soon as people are away from the odor, the symptoms they experience tend to go away.

The V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency received calls Sunday from residents complaining of a strong odor that seemed to have dissipated Friday afternoon. After heavy rains early Friday morning caused pipes containing a mix of oils inside HOVENSA to spill into an internal lagoon, a gaseous smell spread from mid-island to Frederiksted, officials said.

DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes said HOVENSA confirmed that a second spill had occurred Saturday night, when heavy rains again pounded the island.

"The teams were deployed to collect water samples from within the refinery against the backdrop of a Saturday night release of hydrocarbon coupled by ongoing complaints of continuing foul odors from residents who live west of the refinery," Barnes said in a prepared statement.

Air-sampling surveys taken at 11 schools from mid-island to the west end revealed no detectable levels of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide or volatile organic compounds, Barnes said.

Unified Command was set up Saturday at 9 a.m. for local and federal authorities to coordinate and respond from its station at the V.I. National Guard Armory, Government House said. The group includes representatives from DPNR, the EPA, the National Guard, the Health Department and the V.I. Fire Service Hazardous Materials Unit.

Monday, Unified Command responded to the Kingshill area to conduct air-monitoring.

Diageo took responsibility for Monday's odor, and Kirby said they were working to try to mitigate it over the next week. The smell only develops when the refinery is inactive for a number of days. Last week, Diageo was down from Tuesday morning through Friday evening for maintenance, Kirby said.

"We haven't gotten to turn it over yet," he said.

The tank is open to the elements, which is not a problem when the by-product is moved through and treated, but after a few days, the decomposition becomes stinky, he said.

It will likely will be the end of the week before the by-product is turned over fully and the smell dissipates, Kirby said. In the meantime, the distillery is considering putting a tarp over the tank or using a non-harmful deodorizer to mitigate the smell.

- Contact Daniel Shea at 774-8772 ext. 457 or email dshea@dailynews.vi.

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