Salt River Bay plans met with opposition

February 4, 2016

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The Senate Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection will conduct a meeting today on St. Croix to receive testimony on a plan to develop a Marine Research and Education Center at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve.

Tom Eader – Bureau Chief

ST. CROIX – The Senate committee on Energy and Environmental Protection will conduct a meeting today on St. Croix to receive testimony on a plan to develop a marine Research and Education Center at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve.

The proposed project has received opposition from environmentalists and members of the community who are advocating an alternative site for the marine research center to protect the natural resources and historical landmarks in the national park.

The VI National Guard will assist the National Park Service with the project as part of a Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training program. The collaborative project will include the demolition of an abandoned hotel, as well as the dredging of the bioluminescent bay to facilitate the development of the proposed MREC.

Sen. Sammuel Sanes, committee chair, said he scheduled the meeting after hearing concerns from people who gave kayak tours of the bio bay that the proposed project “might potentially harm” the bio bay.

“The ecosystem is very delicate and I wanted to find out more about it.” Sanes said. “I wanted to ensure that if the National Park Service is building a structure there it is not going to effect the bio bay.”

Sanes said there is less than a dozen bio bays in the world and only a few in the Caribbean, so he wanted to get information out to the public to make sure “we don’t destroy our potential tourism attraction.”

Although VING submitted testimony indicating it will work in accordance with environmental guidelines established in an assessment to ensure compliance with federal standards to protect wetlands and threatened and endangered species, members of the community have started a petition that seeks to find an alternative location for the proposed research center. The petitioners do not oppose development of a marine research center, but they do not want it to be constructed in Salt River Bay.

Sanes said there is no legislation before the Senate as it relates to the proposed project. He said the VI Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Division of Coastal Zone Management would, however, have to approve a permit.

Even though the Legislature is not required to approve the proposed project, Sanes said “we should have some say in terms of preserving a part of our heritage, a part of our history.”

“I just hope we can come to some kind of an agreement in terms of not destroying the bio bay or effecting it in anyway.” He said.

The “Save Salt River Bay” petition seeks to “raise awareness regarding the potential environmental, cultural, historical and economic impact the development of a new Marine Research Education Center will have on Salt River Bay.” according to the petition.

A document posted on the Legislature’s Web site pertaining to today’s committee meeting indicates that 31,850 people signed petitions that were sent from March 3, 2014 to Jan. 13.

A total of 910 of the petitioners requested to have the petition letter sent on their behalf to MPS officials, senators, Gov. Kenneth Mapp, Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter and Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett. Those petitioners live on St. Croix, throughout the Caribbean on Puerto Rico, Tortola and Jamaica, in various countries to include Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, India, Spain and Thailand, and in more than 20 states throughout the U.S. mainland.

The petitioners recommend the relocation of the proposed project to Christiansted or another “less endangered area.” including the former Good Hope School campus, Southgate Coastal Reserve or government land located south of Salt River Bay.

The petition notes the project – proposed by NPS in conjunction with Rutgers University, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, the University of South Carolina and the University of the Virgin Islands – will have a “devastating impact” in the following areas:

  • Violating a designated National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve and national landmark by building a research campus lab, housing and auditorium on it.
  • Salt River Bay was identified by the National Trust for Historical Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered sites in the United States and its territories.
  • Dredging Salt River Bay and the bioluminescent bay to accommodate a research marina will destroy the delicate ecosystem currently in place, including destroying one of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world.
  • In 1990, the NPS stated that the area currently being considered for the MREC project was where an archeological discovery of an Amerindian burial ground (AD 660 to 1015), located adjacent to Cabo de las Flechas, ‘may be the most significant find of its nature in the Caribbean.’
  • Salt River Bay houses more than 25 endangered and threatened animals, species and plants. Building on this site will disturb, displace and in some cases destroy many of these treasures we should be fighting to protect and appreciate.
  • The planned site is located in an unprotected area, ripe for destruction by hurricanes and tropical winds. Hurricane Hugo destroyed the last marine research center on the island, and neither the universities or USVI have yet to repair or remove this blighted structure.

The petitioners propose alternative suggestions that would protect Salt River Bay and help foster revitalization of the economic and social vibrancy of the island. The petition indicates that relocating the project to Christiansted or any of the petitioners’ proposed alternatives would “allow the island the opportunity to revitalize a depressed area, encourage new investment, promote job growth and protect one of the only bioluminescent bays in the world.”

Sanes said there is a lot of good that can come out of developing a marine research center on St. Croix. He questioned, however, if there is a need to sacrifice the bio bay.

“It’s all about coming together to see if we can find a solution to all of this.” he said.