Plan to Burn Hurricane Debris Sparks Health Fears in U.S. Virgin Islands

Lawmakers voted to block federal plans to incinerate trees and brush, citing health concerns in a population recovering from hurricanes. Now it's up to the governor.

Marines cleared tree limbs from roadways across St. Croix after Hurricane Maria struck the island on Sept. 19. Now, the officials are determining how to dispose of all that debris. Credit: Lance Cpl. Santino D. Martinez/U.S. Marine Corps

Marines cleared tree limbs from roadways across St. Croix after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island in September 2017. Now, island and U.S. officials are debating how to dispose of all that debris. Credit: Lance Cpl. Santino D. Martinez/U.S. Marine Corps

As the U.S. Virgin Islands struggles to recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, a coalition of environmental groups and health experts have come out in strong opposition to a proposal to burn hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of downed trees and other vegetation in open air incinerators. The groups say it would further exacerbate health disparities in the predominantly black population where nearly one in four people lives below the federal poverty line.

The U.S. Virgin Islands Senate passed legislation to ban the proposed burn on Friday, and the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have threatened to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency if they go ahead with the incineration plan.

U.S. Virgin Islands map

Those opposed say the islands' 100,000 residents are already choking on exhaust from diesel generators that are now pervasive across the territory, where more than half the population lacks electricity. They are instead arguing for composting of the debris, some 400,000 cubic yards on the Island of St. Croix alone, and using the compost to enrich eroded soil depleted by the storms.

The decision on whether to burn or compost is up to the territory's governor, Kenneth Mapp, who must now decide whether to sign the legislation into law.

Incineration is estimated to cost $5.2 million, compared to $5.3 million for mulching and $7.1 million for composting, according to cost estimates for 400,000 cubic yards of tree debris prepared by the Army Corps and shared with members of the U.S. Virgin Islands Senate. Army Corps spokesperson George Stringham said the figures were for "illustrative purposes to show the differences between the methods, but they were not intended as proposals or formal estimates."

Opponents of burning say FEMA and the Army Corps advised the governor to burn the debris and offered financing that favors incineration over composting.

"If it was a community that was not of color, I think the factors for this decision would have been handled with much more sensitivity," said Myron Jackson, president of the U.S. Virgin Islands Senate, who sponsored the bill to ban incineration.

Past Problems with Incineration

The Army Corps and FEMA have proposed using air curtain incinerators, large metal bins with blowers that facilitate hotter, more complete burning.  

The Army Corps planned to use the same open-air incinerators for three to four months at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, after Hurricane Sandy but aborted the effort after one month. The decision to stop burning was in part because the devices violated air quality standards, according to Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator for Region 2, which includes New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"It's completely unnecessary to be burning in the U.S. Virgin Islands when we have a viable composting alternative and also when the operation of these air curtain incinerators will pose such an air quality risk," Enck said.

An air curtain incinerator was used for a few weeks at Floyd Bennett Field in New York after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Clay Church/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

An air curtain incinerator was used for a few weeks at Floyd Bennett Field in New York after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Clay Church/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

During the weeks the incinerators were used in New York, emissions exceeded air quality standards on days of relative high humidity, Enck said, adding that humidity would be significantly higher in the Virgin Islands.

A 2008 report by the EPA on dealing with natural disaster debris notes that, when properly configured, air curtain incineration does provide a "curtain effect" to hold smoke in. The report, however, classifies the technique as "open burning" and says it "often is subject to significant public concern."

Mulching Faces Challenges in the Islands, Too

Stringham, the Army Corps spokesperson, said the proposed incineration plan "is not 'open burning.' The ACI (air curtain incineration) method involves a mechanical blower, blowing air at a high velocity over and into the burn pit, both preventing the escape of emissions and adding oxygen to the fire and thereby raising the temperature. The result is vegetative debris burning hotter and trapped particulates burning longer, further reducing them and controlling emissions."

He said St. Croix already has a large stockpile of unused mulch, or chipped vegetative debris, that has been building up since before the hurricanes and is becoming a safety issue as it rots. "Composting the vegetative debris is generally an acceptable alternative if adequate space and maintenance is provided," he said.

Jackson concedes this is the case but says it's because the islands lack funding for management of the mulch, which he says would not be an issue if FEMA funded the composting program. A proposed composting plan on Island Green Living's website includes commitments from roughly a dozen entities, including universities, parks, golf courses and the territory's commissioner of agriculture, to accept new compost if FEMA funds the program.

Donald Caetano, a spokesperson for FEMA, said the agency has been authorized to fund 100 percent of the cost of debris cleanup from hurricanes Irma and Maria, regardless of the method chosen, and has already provided grants of more than $21 million to the territory for debris removal.

Full funding for debris removal, however, expires six months after hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, meaning in March 2018. The deadline would likely provide sufficient time to complete incineration but may not provide enough time to complete chipping and composting, Enck said.

FEMA would cover only 90 percent of the cost for a second six months of debris removal, and after that would require a request for an extension, Caetano said.

Environmental Groups Threaten to Sue

If the Army Corps proceeds with plans to incinerate the waste, the Sierra Club, the Virgin Island Conservation Society and the Island Green Living Association intend to sue, according to a letter sent on Nov. 22 to the Army Corps and FEMA.

"Using air curtain incinerators presents an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment in violation of Section 7002 of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act," the letter says, citing the federal law governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste.

Hurricane Irma left broken tree limbs and destroyed homes across the once-green hillsides of St. Croix. Then Hurricane Maria struck two weeks later. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A letter signed by 13 public health officials in the United States and Canada was included with the notice urging officials not to incinerate the waste.

"Burning of brush and wood on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John will increase air pollution and therefore the risk of associated health problems, including exacerbation of asthma in children and adults; increased severity of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and fatal myocardial infarction," the health officials write. "It would be irresponsible to intentionally introduce additional environmental exposures to the people of the Virgin Islands at this time, especially when non-polluting alternatives exist."

Adding to the Islands' Struggle to Recover

Jackson, who suffered asthma attacks as a child, echoed those concerns. The Virgin Islands is already airlifting patients with respiratory problems to the mainland because the territory's hospitals and health care facilities cannot provide adequate care with the island still recovering from the hurricane, he said.

More than 75 days after Maria ravaged the territory, 61 percent of residents lack electricity, cell service is unreliable, few schools are open and many people employed in tourism, the island's main industry, remain out of work.   

Jackson said the current crisis builds on health disparities caused by the Hovensa refinery on St. Croix, one of the largest oil refineries in the world until it closed. The refinery was fined $5 million by the EPA for air emissions and was tasked with adding more than $700 million in air pollution controls in 2011 before ultimately closing in 2012.

"How much more do you want us to consider in terms of health disparities?" Jackson said.

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