Foul odor coming from HOVENSA sickens 20

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ST. CROIX - After three days of the refinery's denying any connection with pungent odors that sickened students and closed schools, a HOVENSA discharge Friday affected most of the island, caused widespread closures of government facilities and sent at least 20 people to the hospital, officials said.

The gaseous smell swept over the island early Friday morning after heavy rains caused pipes containing a mix of oils to overflow within the refinery, which was the cause of the heavy stench, HOVENSA said in a statement.

Calls inundated the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency's 911 system, beginning at 4:18 a.m. as the smell jolted residents from their sleep. Calls came from areas stretching from Estate Strawberry to Frederiksted town and Sprat Hall, according to a VITEMA call log.

After three days of a mysterious odor that forced schools to close, HOVENSA was preparing to meet with local officials Friday morning to defend itself against accusations that the refinery was the source of the unidentified smell.

On Thursday, the V.I. Education Department had canceled classes at three schools in anticipation of continued problems. Friday, the department realized the situation was far greater than what it had faced during the previous three days, said St. Croix Deputy School Superintendant Maria Encarnacion.

"We had administrators that live in the Frederiksted area that reported in, saying the odor was especially strong," she said. "After those reports, we decided to close those eight additional schools."

Another school followed close behind, making a total of 12 public schools that closed Friday. Three public schools on the eastern side of the island stayed open.

The smell also caused the closure of government facilities in the Kingshill and Frederiksted areas, including the V.I. Legislature and the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources office complex, though DPNR's essential employees stuck around to investigate the problem, DPNR spokesman Jamal Nielsen said.

Health officials said the odor was not a major health risk but urged residents with compromised immune systems to stay indoors and run fans in their homes to keep the air moving. The V.I. Health Department set up an emergency operations center to address concerns and received 20 calls, according to V.I. Health Department spokeswoman Eunice Bedminster.

Twenty people also reported to the Luis Hospital emergency room, complaining of sore throats, nausea, burning eyes, runny noses, vomiting and tight chests, said Xaulanda Simmonds-Emmanuel, the hospital's vice president for support services. Of those, 17 had been treated and discharged by late Friday afternoon.

DPNR officials continued to press HOVENSA on the incidents that occurred Tuesday through Thursday, saying they had used a process of elimination to focus their investigation on the refinery for the week's disruptions. DPNR officials - operating along with EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard - have investigated Diageo, Cruzan Rum, the V.I. Waste Management Authority and HOVENSA since the sulfuric smells first arrived Tuesday about 10 a.m., said DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes.

"Based on the process of elimination, we are aggressively investigating HOVENSA as the potential responsible party for the odor complaints we have been fielding since Tuesday," Barnes said. "HOVENSA has not identified a cause for the odor, nor have they come forward in terms of being the responsible party."

Despite the growing pressure from DPNR, HOVENSA said there was no indication that it was the source of the stench.

"We have been cooperating with DPNR since the initial odor complaints," said HOVENSA spokesman Steven Strahan. "Until the rains last night, the refinery has been operating normally, and there have been no indications that the odors detected in Central High School on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday originated from HOVENSA."

Barnes said that sulfur dioxide - a common by-product of the petroleum refining process - was detected near St. Croix Central High School during the previous days.

The refinery is the largest emitter of the gas in the territory. In 2008, HOVENSA reported releasing 5,784 tons of sulfur dioxide, only .02 tons of which was due to accidents.

"We have received readings of detectable limits of sulfur dioxide at Central High School and those detectable limits, along with a process of elimination has prompted us to feel that HOVENSA is the responsible party," Barnes said.

Strahan reiterated that HOVENSA was operating under normal conditions at the time the gas infused Central High.

"Air monitoring in and around the refinery during that time did not find anything that would cause a detectable odor," Strahan said. While HOVENSA maintains five sulfur dioxide monitors, the refinery would not release the data recorded during the week to The Daily News, saying that DPNR would be the best agency to contact for that information.

On Friday, DPNR requested detailed logs of HOVENSA's operations during the last week.

While sulfur dioxide was detected at low levels during the previous days, a monitor is nowhere near as sensitive as a human's nose, said EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez.

"The human olfactory system is far more sensitive than any equipment we use for air emissions," he said. "So, we, as humans, can pick up odors that are essentially non-detectable by the standard air-monitoring equipment."

While a smell may be nauseating, that does not mean it is hazardous, officials said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that some chemicals "give off strong odors, making people feel sad and upset," but that "most odors in the air are not at levels that cause disease, and the symptoms from odors go away when the odor is not there."

The symptoms listed by the CDC were common conditions for a number of people last week.

Yvonne Petersen, the executive director of the nonprofit Beyond Visions Foundation located in the Harvey housing community, said symptoms for week were worse than normal. And given that the housing community is just downwind of HOVENSA and Diageo, it is normally pretty bad, she said.

"It's getting worse," she said. "The kids were very nauseated."

"We put the fans on, try to breathe - short," Petersen said. "Keep the windows closed on the one side. But sometimes we just need to get out of it, just leave as soon as possible."

There seemed to be few places to go to escape the smell Friday, unless it was east.

Partially for that reason, St. Croix Country Day School Headmaster Bill Sinfield decided to keep school open Friday, despite the looming odor, he said.

"What good is it sending them home if it's stronger there?" asked Sinfield. "What we said to our parents is that if they feel it's in the best interest of their kids to pick them up and take them home, then they are free to do that."

Only one family had picked up their children early as of midday, he said.

The day's events proved to Sen. Sammuel Sanes that the territory is hardly prepared for any major catastrophe, he said.

"I truly believe that at one point or the other, we need to better equip DPNR and the Department of Health, and equip them with emergency response teams to go out and tell you if it's a public health problem," Sanes said.

"For many years we've been dealing with this, and we need to put our foot down. We need to stop waiting for others to inform us," he said, referring to federal assistance upon which local authorities rely.

HOVENSA and the local regulatory agencies have been facing growing public scrutiny in the wake of a series of chemical releases last year that culminated on Dec. 9, when the refinery released hydrocarbons, sickening about 250 Central High students and staff and sending 36 people to the hospital.

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that, even after the series of incidents dating back to September, major flaws in the local response have not been addressed.

DPNR still is unable to provide independent field air-monitoring because the portable air monitors it purchased in 2007 are not in operation and have not been calibrated, according to officials.

Additionally, the Health Department is unable to implement a key element of its emergency response plan, the deployment of a Rapid Response Team of medical personnel. In a report released after the December incident, a health official noted, "This RRT does not exist, other than conceptually."

Five months later, according to Bedminster, the RRT still does not exist.

"Public Health Preparedness and Environmental Health divisions' staff continue to do the necessary surveillance work," she said.

While the incidents that occurred in the early morning hours Friday brought to light the lingering flaws, they also highlighted some improved channels of communications among response entities, and data was quickly gathered and sent out by VITEMA through the VI Alert system.

The two incidents Friday began about 1:45 a.m., when heavy rains forced a mix of different types of oil to overflow from pipes under the refinery that collect process water, Strahan said. It was difficult to determine the amount of spillage because of the weather, he said.

"No product was released outside of the refinery," he said.

The oil was predominantly collected in an internal lagoon, but the odor spread quickly, Barnes said. HOVENSA used foam in an attempt to suppress the smell.

Some 15 minutes later, "a pilot flame in one of our flares went out and had to be relit due to the heavy rains," Strahan said. "Again, it is not clear whether this contributed in any way to today's odor."

DPNR is continuing its investigation into the source of the odors from earlier in the week, Barnes said.

- Contact Daniel Shea at 774-8772 ext. 457 or email Territorial Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Christine Lett said the agency did not receive any information of businesses or federal agencies closing as a result of the odor Friday. However, a number of local government agencies shut their doors in response to the fumes.

Public schools that closed Friday

- St. Croix Central High; Charles Emanuel Elementary; John Woodson Junior High; St. Croix Educational Complex; Ricardo Richards Junior High; Claude Markoe Elementary; Alexander Henderson Elementary; Evelyn Williams Elementary; Eulalie Rivera Elementary; Alfredo Andrews Elementary; Arthur Richards Elementary; Lew Muckle Elementary.

Public schools that closed Thursday

- St. Croix Central High; Charles Emanuel Elementary; John Woodson Junior High.

Public schools that closed Tuesday and Wednesday

- St. Croix Central High.

Human Services facilities that closed Friday

- Head Starts: Profit; Kingshill; Glynn; William's Delight; Mt. Pleasant; Concordia; Campo Rico; Frederiksted-Claude Markoe; Marley housing community; and Prince Street, Frederiksted.

- Division of Family Assistance.

- Division of Juvenile Justice Juvenile Unit on Kingshill.

- Kingshill Community Rehabilitation Center.

- Division of Maintenance and Transportation office in Diamond.

DPNR facilities that closed Friday

- Mars Hill office complex, except for all essential employees.

ST. CROIX - Since the first gassy intrusion onto St. Croix Central High School's campus Tuesday, many at the scene came to a number of off-the-cuff conclusions that officials now say may have been correct.

The first general conclusion was that HOVENSA was the source - even though quite a few people also suspected Diageo. On Thursday night, officials with the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources said they had narrowed their investigation down to focusing on HOVENSA as the cause of the lingering odors.

Other conjecture dealt with a more complex question: Why was the smell so bad?

Given that HOVENSA had been operating under normal conditions throughout the week - until two incidents early Friday morning changed that - it seemed odd that the emissions would be so concentrated and strong.

In explanation, many did little more than look up at the cloudy sky and point: the weather.

It turns out they were onto something.

"There was a weather pattern this week that might be a factor," said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Elias Rodriguez, who was in communication with an EPA on-scene coordinator on St. Croix. He said a meteorological inversion essentially could have compressed the atmosphere.

Rodriguez said an inversion "is a phenomenon that doesn't allow air to disperse as easily as during normal conditions, which would keep the air stagnant over a certain area."

Rodriguez said that could be an explanation for why emissions that normally disperse almost without notice would have seemed so potent: a concentrated pocket was trapped, hovering over Central High and mid-island before it slowly dispersed.

But National Weather Service meteorologist Ernesto Rodriguez said he did not have any indications of an inversion over St. Croix during the week. Conditions were too unstable to support such a system, he said.

While an inversion would have such an effect, it was more likely that the unusually thick cloud cover performed a similar function, the meteorologist said.

"We have had a lot of cloudiness, mid- to upper-level cloudiness from maybe Wednesday to Thursday," Ernesto Rodriguez said. "We've had some serious clouds over us. Those kinds of clouds maybe cap or trap the air."

HOVENSA has denied that the fumes responsible for closing down Central High and two other schools from Tuesday through Thursday were the result of its operations, even if weather conditions were abnormal.

"Our refinery was operating normally when odors were reported at Central High School," said HOVENSA spokesman Steven Strahan. "Air monitoring in and around the refinery during that time did not find anything that would cause a detectable odor."

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