V.I. wastewater problems are great, but the solutions are readily available
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
This is an abridged version of an Open Letter to Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes about measures needed in three major areas for the protection of our coral reefs: In advance of the February 25 public meeting of the Coral Reef Protection Group I would like to share my concerns with you regarding three critical areas of water quality protection needs. This is an open letter because I believe it takes a commitment from all of us to bring about the level of change needed to address certain problems.
There is no question that all three of these major areas of activity and infrastructure described below have contributed greatly to the degradation of our coral reefs and water quality throughout the USVI.
Decentralized Wastewater Systems EPA estimates that 60 to 70 percent of homes and businesses in the USVI are served by decentralized wastewater systems. Decentralized systems serve a broad range of facility types and sizes, ranging from single family residences (individual onsite systems) to large resorts and commercial developments.
The "state of decentralized systems" in the Virgin Islands is terrible. Problems range from woefully undersized systems with poorly performing treatment processes, to energy-and-maintenance-intensive systems (such as packaged aerated tank units sold under a variety of brand names). It's common for systems serving residences to have less than one-third of the needed treated capacity (based on industry-accepted practices elsewhere and sound engineering principles).
While these maintenance-intensive systems don't (and couldn't possibly) receive the level of servicing and care needed to consistently produce acceptable effluent quality, they also consume so much energy that property owners and managers just turn them off. And then they're discharging untreated wastewater into our bays and shorelines. When it rains, the storm water run-off carries these polluted waters to our shorelines, damaging our marine ecosystems including our coral reefs.
Just to keep their systems "flowing," property owners are having to call waste haulers to pump their systems far too often. This stresses the functioning of our government centralized wastewater treatment operations (assuming those haulers actually deliver that waste to one of those permitted centralized facilities, rather than dump that waste into a manhole, bush or bay).
For just a single residential property, this costs $500 to $600 per trip by a waste hauler. Properly sized systems should need pumping no more than every 7-12 years, or longer.
So what can we do?
1. DPNR already has a detailed set of design-construction criteria that were developed in 2006. DPNR was poised to take it forward for necessary approvals in 2005 and 2006, but election-year changes within DPNR stalled that effort. That document should be adopted following a relatively short period of review, with incorporation of any updates needed. The document was developed based on independent data / information nationwide and on very successful results using those design and construction approaches.
2. Affordable things can be done to existing systems, short of replacing them outright. Those measures could serve to address many of the problems we are seeing, and can often be done in relatively low-cost ways. But it's important that they're done in an informed way.
For example: A St. Thomas multi-unit residential complex had a completely failed wastewater system, and they have to rely on treated recycle water for flushing their toilets. The full system replacement couldn't be afforded all at once, so the design included an interim "fix" with temporary continued use of existing equipment. Even with just half the new tank capacity and equipment on-line, the effluent quality is now worse, territory-wide. The only reason we're not more often aware of it (other than beach closings) is that it is mixing with soil/mud as it drains down hillsides toward our bays.
Replacing the whole system will save many thousands of dollars annually in maintenance and energy costs as compared with what they're spending now for terrible quality "treated" water. Design and construction approaches and details are presented in the draft designconstruction criteria prepared for DPNR in 2006.
3. It is the responsibility of the engineering / design community to better educate itself on sound practices.
But its DPNRs responsibility to adopt and enforce requirements for decentralized systems that will help ensure that environmental and public health are protected.
It is vital that an informed critical review occur for each permitted project. The 2006 draft design criteria can be referred to for system sizing. Those criteria are in keeping with industry-accepted practices throughout the continental U.S., including many locations with geophysical and climate conditions comparable to those in the Virgin Islands.
Sewage Dumping from Boats
Types 1 and 2 Marine Sanitation Devices
Despite the absence of coral reefs in states like Maine, Maryland, Washington and Oregon, those states have adopted programs to discourage and curtail the dumping of raw sewage from boats. The science is clear on impacts to aquatic species and the environment from the dumping of untreated sewage. Coastal states throughout the United States have implemented vigorous public education programs having the simple message: "Pump It â¦Don't Dump It". It is also commonplace to find sewage pump-out stations at marinas in those continental U.S. states.
Neither is done in the U.S. Virgin Islands, despite our highly sensitive marine ecosystems.
Boat captains in the Virgin Islands admit that essentially no one honors the "three-mile law" (that is, you're required to be at least three miles out to dump raw sewage). Many people in the Virgin Islands say things like: "The sea water neutralizes sewage from our boats."
I have to wonder how so many people can think that basic science applying to the rest of the world somehow doesn't apply to the Virgin Islands.
EPA has the following definition for "No Discharge Zones":
"A No Discharge Zone (NDZ) or area is a designated body of water that prohibits the discharge of treated and untreated boat sewage. Federal Law prohibits the discharge of untreated sewage from vessels within all navigable waters of the U. S., which include territorial seas within three miles of shore."
EPA Region 2 lists a number of NDZs for both New York and New Jersey. Yet there are no current listings for either the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. I should think that 100 percent of the area surrounding Virgin Islands shorelines should be designated as NDZs. Even if currents carry pollutants away from our shores, vulnerable offshore cays and aquatic species are just short distances down-current.
We need to adopt territory-wide No Discharge Zones. We must stop using our waters as toilets.
And finally, we need to deal responsibly with the two mountainous unlined dumps - one each on St. Thomas and St. Croix - we commonly refer to as "landfills."
These are unlined shoreline dumps filled with all kinds of hazardous and toxic materials. Simply covering / capping the Bovoni and Anguilla fills not only would fail to protect the shores from perpetual leaching of materials from these dumps, but it also would likely create very dangerous scenarios relative to methane gas or other problematic emissions migrating to nearby homes and businesses.
Methane takes the path of least resistance. And for an unlined fill that's capped - that's not good news for those nearby - in all directions.
We must commit to a plan that will clean up these dangerous fills in responsible ways, and eliminate the long-term degradation assured to shorelines and down- current marine ecologies in each of those two settings.
All of these things are being done elsewhere, and in places with much less vulnerable natural conditions than the USVI.
It is important, though, that we fully embrace the challenge and do things that will truly make major differences -- and not simply focus on things that sound and "feel" good but don't really address the problems.
But here's the good news: All of the things we urgently need to be doing contribute to the success of other badly needed sustainable solutions.
â¦ The availability of good quality composted organic product will not only help close our landfills faster by diverting biodegradable organics from them, and restore the productivity of our local soils when we use it for farming and gardening, but when used as topping material for roadsides and parks or ball fields it helps quickly re-establish healthy vegetation and minimize erosion and sedimentation problems. Thus, a solid waste solution becomes part of water quality and "grow local foods" solutions.
â¦ When we produce pulverized recycled glass of different grades, instead of having to pay $40 to $45 per ton for quarried rock for things like sand polishing filters for decentralized wastewater systems, we can use that recycled glass for polishing filters as well as for many other things including beautiful countertops.
â¦ When we terrace our hillsides with retaining walls, not only are we preventing subsidence and erosion / sedimentation, but we are creating excellent areas behind those retaining walls for the subsurface dispersal of our treated onsite wastewater.
â¦ Recycle and reuse of properly treated wastewater reduces our sea water desalination and potable water cistern capacity needs, thereby reducing those capital and operating costs and power needs.
* If we use sound and sustainable decentralized wastewater systems needing one-tenth to one-twentieth of the power as what's now commonly used in the Virgin Islands, we'll have dramatically reduced territory-wide power consumption, which is of course key to transitioning to renewable energy supplies and reducing demand on current WAPA power generation.
- Susan Parten, P.E., St. Thomas