Filing Seeks To Determine Extent Of Environmental Contamination At Caneel Bay

This article appeared in National Parks Traveler By Kurt Repanshek – September 30th, 2020 4:08pm

A 12-page filing tied to one of the nation’s strongest environmental laws could succeed where the National Park Service so far has failed in trying to determine the extent of environmental contamination at the Caneel Bay Resort on the shores of Virgin Islands National Park and have it cleaned up.

David DiGiacomo, a Denver attorney who has a home on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, last week sent a notice of intent to sue over environmental contamination at the once-idyllic resort to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, National Park Service, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and CBI Acquisitions, the firm that has operated the resort rent-free since 2004.

If the parties don’t answer the filing within 90 days, DiGiacomo can follow with a lawsuit under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, also known as CERLCA, as well as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, in a bid to force them to investigate, and if needed mitigate, environmental contamination ranging from semivolatile organic compounds, arsenic, mercury, and hydrocarbons tied to fuel, to possibly asbestos and even DDT.

“My wife and I have been part of the community, invested in the community, since the day we got there,” DiGiacomo said Wednesday during a phone call. “I got very concerned that this treasure (Caneel Bay), this remarkable piece of property, with a history going back perhaps 3,000 years, would have been so mistreated over the years by the various operators.”

A 2014 environmental assessment of the property for the Park Service raised questions of contamination from SVOCs — semivolatile organic compounds — often related to pesticides, and arsenic, according to documents Traveler obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

“In addition, there are concerns for leachability of SVOCs, arsenic and mercury to groundwater,” the consultant’s report noted. The surveys also found concentrations of total petroleum hydrocarbons and diesel range organics above acceptable levels set by the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

While the assessment called for more extensive testing to determine the extent of these contaminants — both across the ground surface and to determine depth of contamination — Park Service records from 2017 indicated CBI refused to allow a contractor for the Park Service to access the grounds to perform further testing. Although Interior Department attorneys believe the Park Service has the right to go onto the property to do the requisite testing, the agency has continued to decline to say whether that access was ever granted.

The late Laurance S. Rockefeller built the resort after falling in love with St. John, and along with providing thousands of acres for creation of the national park he later signed an agreement with the Interior secretary in 1983 that called for the resort to be given to the Park Service in September 2023.

Since 2010 the Park Service has been in talks with CBI officials in an effort to craft a more typical concessions arrangement for the resort, but those talks so far apparently have been fruitless. Further complicating the situation were back-to-back hurricanes in September 2017, Irma and Maria, that devastated the resort and left it largely in shambles. 

Since moving full-time to St. John about six years ago, DiGiacomo has gotten involved with various organizations on the island, including Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, where he’s a member of the board. He’s studied the preliminary environmental studies the Park Service was able to get done at Caneel Bay, and was frustrated that nothing was being done to clean up the wastes.

“The environmental reports tell us that there are a lot of areas of concern,” said DiGiacomo, adding that he’s heard that asbestos materials removed from lodging units might have been buried on the resort’s grounds and that there was even DDT, a chemical insecticide with environmental impacts so troubling that it was banned from use in the United States in 1972, on the property.

“I talked to a former employee who said she actually witnessed barrels of DDT sitting out rusting below the catchment basin,” he said. “In doing some further inquiries I found out that they bulldozed part or all of the (historic) slave quarters. And there may be actually remains of humans and archaeological remains. So, I think that it’s wrong, that it’s egregious, that a person entrusted with this remarkable site that actually I think should be a World Heritage site, would mistreat it this way.

“That’s why I decided that I was going to give the notice and hopefully encourage the National Park Service, Department of Interior, EPA, to get busy to make sure that this is properly remediated,” he said.

National Park Service staff did not immediate respond Wednesday to a request for reaction to the filing. A phone call to Gary Engle, the CEO of Stoneleigh Capital, a private equity concern based in Connecticut that has run Caneel Bay Resort, was not returned Wednesday. 

DiGiacomo said he fears that DDT might have leaked from the barrels and flowed down to the Hawksnest shoreline.

“They haven’t looked at this issue, the NEPA process; they started that sometime before the hurricanes. I don’t believe that’s ever been completed,” he said. “The fact that the hurricanes may have in fact made this contamination issue much more signficant has never been addressed.”

That the Park Service hasn’t pushed harder on addressing the issues at Caneel Bay has been frustrating, said DiGiacomo.

“I’ve been doing a lot of the research on the Park Service regulations, from the director, including the CFRs (Code of Federal Regulations), and the statute. It is abundantly clear, absolutely clear to me, that the Park Service has a direction from Congress that they were supposed to be protecting this property,” he said. “They’ve been negligent in ensuring that the operations at Caneel were done in accordance with all the environmental and archaeological requirements, whether it’s the Antiquities Act or RCRA (Resource Conservation Recovery Act) or whatever.” 

Similar articles appeared in other media outlets:

St. John Source: Private Citizen Prepares to Sue Caneel Bay Resort Over Contamination. By Amy H Roberts. September 27, 2020