EPA works with local agencies to monitor air near St. Croix school

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ST. CROIX - The investigation into the source of intermittent noxious odors at St. Croix Central High School continued today, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working in conjunction with local agencies to confirm the origin and composition of what caused the stink.

EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said Tuesday that the EPA has three on-scene coordinators working the investigation and supporting local agencies, such as the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the local agency that requested assistance.

The on-scene coordinators are part of the EPA Superfund program, and Rodriguez described them as "our first responders" for investigating situations that include incidents where potentially hazardous substances may have been spilled or released.

"We are indeed working together or in support of the Virgin Islands government's efforts to assess the situation around the high school," Rodriguez said.

Officials have pinpointed the probable origin of the odor to a sewage system either on or in close proximity to the school's campus, but are still trying to confirm that.

Central has been closed since March 18, when the on-again, off-again noxious odor was on-again, and prompted more than 35 students and at least one adult to seek treatment at Luis Hospital. Symptoms ranged from fainting spells and vomiting to rapid breathing and heart rates, dizziness, headache, nausea, altered mental status and involuntary movements.

A Government House statement Monday said that elevated readings of hydrogen sulfide and propane fuel had been found during the site investigation. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, hydrogen sulfide can be produced by the bacterial break-down of organic materials and human and animal wastes, and is sometimes called sewer gas.

EPA personnel primarily are doing two things now, according to Rodriguez.

"One is real-time air monitoring - monitoring where results are recorded or displayed instantaneously," he said.

The other is air sampling, during which air is drawn into a filter canister and the canister is shipped to a laboratory for analysis.

"At this point, my understanding is that we're doing both in support of the V.I. Government's response," Rodriguez said.

He said that in general, what the EPA is looking for are chemical constituents that may be associated with local industries in the area, as well as chemical constituents that may be associated with sewage, among other things.

DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes told a group of Central High School parents who gathered for a meeting at Educational Complex on Monday night that after much investigation, it does not appear at this point that the intermittent odor is coming from Diageo or HOVENSA.

Instead, she said, it appears that the likely source is in the sewage infrastructure on or near the school campus.

In a statement that Government House released Monday, Gov. John deJongh Jr. noted the cooperation of HOVENSA and Diageo in the investigation. According to that statement, the two companies have agreed to suspend operations for a 48-hour period that began at 12:01 a.m. today, as part of the overall investigation and air monitoring.

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

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