Odor at Central High School still a mystery

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ST. CROIX - Two days after a noxious odor at Central High School caused students and staff there to be sickened, some rushed away by ambulance because of nausea and dizziness, St. Croix American Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas said her members are growing more concerned every day and want answers.

"My members have been in and out of this office, and their frustration is evident as soon as they walk in the door," Soto-Thomas said Thursday. "They want answers about what is going on, what we are going to do next and even what, if any, lingering effects the exposure to this smell or whatever may have on their bodies."

In a statement issued Thursday by Government House, Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes said a second day of field investigations continued on the school's campus in hopes of sniffing out the source of the odor that has disrupted normal school operations since the beginning of the year.

Barnes said on-site investigations at the campus have included inspection of sewer lines and manholes to determine whether the school's sewage system is contributing to the presence of the foul odor.

V.I. Waste Management Authority spokeswoman Stella Saunders said as part of the newly formed task force that is investigating the odor, her agency has been conducting a number of checks of their lines and manholes, in and around the school's campus. The line-inspection has taken place from as far east as the HOVENSA training school and as far west as V.I. Superior Court in an attempt to verify that there is nothing in the system that may be causing the smell.

"We were fairly certain that none of the smells were caused by our sewer system," Saunders said. "We did it to check just as an additional assurance, but we have carbon knockers in place that acts as a filter of any odor that may be coming up."

Saunders said Waste Management was called out Wednesday after reports of an odor at Charles Emmanuel School, which is about a mile northwest of Central High. Officials determined that it was not a Waste Management problem and that stagnant water under the school's kitchen was the cause of the bad odor there, she said.

On Thursday, crews on two large pump trucks and a box truck equipped with a remote camera for looking deep inside the sewage system worked on both sides of the campus.

Barnes said while teams were checking the campus, another multi-agency team made an unannounced visit to HOVENSA, where permitted tank-cleaning operations have been under way for some time.

Barnes said she has requested the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help with the air-quality monitoring, and the federal agency has agreed to have additional equipment, along with a team of officials, on-island by this weekend and ready to begin air-quality testing early next week.

Barnes said while the focus has been on the school campus, some testing also might expand to surrounding neighborhoods.

"Until the air testing begins, there will be a focus on the underground infrastructure of Central High to determine if there are any pipelines that are a contributing factor to this odor," she said. "At the same time, officials will be reviewing weather conditions, wind patterns, changes to the prevailing winds and atmospheric conditions" to determine whether any of these may have played a role.

Gov. John deJongh, Jr. was updated of the ongoing effort at a meeting Thursday, he said the administration's goal is to get to the bottom of what is causing the odor and addressing it.

"I can assure everyone that until we have a better idea of what this odor is and what is causing it, we will not reopen Central High School - if that means the school remaining closed beyond Monday, we will make that decision," he said in the Government House statement.

V.I. Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory and administrators are working to identify options to resume classroom operations for the school while the investigation is under way, according to the statement.

Soto-Thomas said she has had many conversations with deJongh, Frett-Gregory and Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen because her membership has been crying out for assistance with the problem and has reached the breaking point.

She said the biggest concerns for the membership, as well as for some parents she has spoken to, is finding somewhere to go until the situation is rectified and having to deal with a number of illnesses triggered by the smell.

"These are tough times, and for our parents and teachers to have to foot these medical bills - even if it is just the copay - is one more hardship for them," she said.

Soto-Thomas said she is looking forward to getting her membership and students off the campus, at least until a definite all-clear is given, and she said she has proposed conducting a double session at Educational Complex as a possible temporary solution.

"They are both high schools and have similar make-ups and needs," she said. "I don't know what the department's final decision will be, but that was my input."

While on the campus Tuesday, Soto-Thomas said she saw reactions she had never seen before in such a large group and that it was similar to mass hysteria as more students began feeling the effects of the gas and others panicked as the situation unfolded.

Tuesday's incident across the campus was the third instance of a foul odor in just more than a month. While some staff at the school also reported experiencing headaches, burning sensations in their chest and lungs or nausea, none went to the hospital for treatment, according to reports.

However, hospital officials reported that they saw 35 students who were brought in to the emergency room with varying symptoms, including rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, altered mental state and involuntary movements.

The students were given clinical assessments, stabilized and most were treated with oxygen or IV or a combination of both, according to hospital officials.

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

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