So….Here we are wrapping up the initial update on the current status of Caneel Bay. Earlier this week, I typed up a broad synopsis of what’s been going on with the property since the storms from information in reports by the National Parks Traveler. Today, I’m going to give you a little update on a couple of on-island actions and perspectives.
I realized about a quarter way through interview number two this week that this is going to be a lot more than two parts. So, you’ll be seeing plenty of Caneel Bay related info on News of St. John over the next few weeks. There actually have been a few stirrings on St. John over the past month or two in regards to the fate of the property, but not by CBI Acquisitions or the Department of the Interior….
Many of you are likely familiar with Friends of Virgin Islands National Park (VINP). This non-profit organization is responsible for many of the clean-up and conservation efforts in VI National Park on St. John. Their mission is to work with NPS to “protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources of VINP, while connecting visitors to the park and the park to the community.”
On August 12, Friends of the Park Board Chair, Andy Rutnik and President, Todd Sampsell sent a letter to the Department of the Interior with the intent of finding a solution for the Caneel Bay property that:
- “Recognizes the St. John and St. Thomas communities as a voice in the planning and negotiating for the future lease and/or concession agreements”
- “And, as Laurance Rockefeller intended with the extinguishment of the RUE in 2023, that any negotiated lease or concession agreements provide the St. John community and visitors greater access to the property as part of our Virgin Islands National Park.”
The Friends’ position is clearly stated in the news release with the full letter attached that is available for public viewing. (If you want to follow up on additional information from the documents referenced in this article, Friends VINP has links for all of them here.)
Their requests of the DOI are as follows:
- Extinguishment of the Retained Use Estate (RUE) for CBIA’s failure to preserve and maintain the property.
- Commencement of a new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (reporting) process that will provide the St. John and larger Virgin Islands community with a voice in the future development and management of the Caneel Bay property.
- Immediately resume full characterization of the environmental contamination of the property leading to a remediation plan that holds responsible parties accountable.
I had the opportunity to chat with Todd this week, to get a little clarification on the breakdown of these points.
Point number one—- The RUE was set up by Rockefeller in September of 1983 for a forty-year term. Under the terms of the agreement CBIA is defaulting in multiple areas. The big one, that is apparent with a naked eye, is the maintenance of the property. The RUE outlines Rockefeller’s intent for this visitors of the park to enjoy the “outstanding scenic and other features” on the property.”
The party standing as current “Holder” of the RUE (currently CBIA) is responsible for the maintenance.
- Be consistent with the preservation of such outstanding scenic and other features of national significance.
- Preserve the premises to the extent feasible in their natural condition for public benefit, enjoyment and inspiration.
“They clearly have not done that,” Todd stated.
There are several options on the table under negotiation at present. All of which COULD include CBIA.
- A 40-year noncompetitive lease: Under negotiation is a proposed 40-year lease. Essentially, this would look like a landlord (DOI/NPS) tenant (CBIA) situation. Typically, these leases are bid on buy multiple contractors. This is being extended exclusively to CBIA.
- A competitive lease: Should the RUE expire in 2023 or be terminated by DOI due to noncompliance. DOI could offer a lease agreement with up to 60 year terms by competitive bid, .
- A concessions agreement: These agreements are typically much shorter term and, generally, NPS would be paid on a percentage of sales. Like in a lease, NPS owns and controls the property. It could be an agreement with one large business or several small ones.
Todd is fearful of the outcome of the negotiations happening right now between the attorneys of CBIA and the DOI due to a lack of transparency or inclusion of local interests.
“They could possibly hammer out an agreement that could be very favorable to CBIA and not in the best interest of St. John or the park.”
He leans towards a lease situation with CBIA which has the possibility of continuing to hold them accountable for the cleanup. With a shorter term concessions agreement, there’s no telling who will have to foot the bill.
Phew…on to point number two and three…
I mentioned last week the environmental studies that were conducted in 2012 and 2014. There was an additional third report that was started in 2016 and concluded in 2017. These reports were ordered when legislation authorized the park service to negotiate a 40-year lease without going out to bid. In order to take advantage of this, CBIA would have to give up the RUE.
“The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process begins when a federal agency develops a proposal to take a major federal action.” – from EPA.gov
These assessments and the corresponding reports are called for as part of the overall NEPA process. This three step process (for Caneel) looked like this:
- Phase 1 – 2012 – Environmental Assessment: Corresponding environmental report research consisted of a walk through of the property pointing out problem areas.
- Phase 2 – 2014 – Environmental Assessment: According to Todd, in their corresponding environmental report, the engineers found seven sites of contamination exceeding limits deemed by the EPA “safe for public health.”
- Phase 3 – 2017 – Site Evaluation Report – This was the final report that called for full characterization and remediation planning.
I asked Todd to review my report prior to publishing, as a note, I wanted to include his comments on this portion:
“They do recommend full characterization of the contamination, ongoing monitoring and removal/remediation. None of that has occurred.”
To public knowledge, these further tests were never conducted. Because, CBIA refused to allow federal contractors onto the property to complete the work. Then, along came Irma. And then Maria. Heavy rainfall and earth shattering winds have likely worsened the impact of these chemicals that the engineers reported almost a decade ago.
So, the second and third requests are for a new set of reports to reassess environmental impacts on the property that could be having long term, negative effects on, not only the reefs and fragile eco system, but also of the health of residents swimming in the seemingly safe waters.
Seven weeks later, the “Friends” have still not received a response from the DOI and Todd is fearful that their requests could be lost in the shuffle of the upcoming election.
Last month, a part-time STJ resident and resilient do-gooder lit a slightly larger fire in hopes of seeing some movement at Caneel Bay. On September 22, David DiGiacomo sent a Notice of Intent to file suit to Gary Engle, managing partner of CBIA. According to David, this notice gives Engle, or the EPA, 90 days to respond.
David has led other charges in defense of the betterment of Love City. As a community organizer after the storms, he assisted the tenants of a low income housing property to organize and helped them defend their rights, with success.
“I want to be clear, that I have never been paid for these things” he said. In regards to Caneel Bay, “I just want to ensure this most majestic site be treated the way it deserves.”
And he wants it done right. “For the people of St. John.”
He has spoken with two former Caneel Bay employees in regards to the past state of the property. One recalled seeing open barrels of DDT, a colorless, tasteless almost odorless chemical compound most generally used for insecticide. This particular compound was not even mentioned in the NEPA reports.
If this is the case and the compound remained on the property, the impact of Irma likely made the spread of this environmentally hazardous chemical significantly worse.
In addition to the chemicals, there was a 1000-gallon diesel spill that wasn’t fully cleaned up. According to David, “There’s asbestos all over the place.” Which, considering the similar cleanup Cinnamon Bay is in the midst of, I don’t find hard to believe.
All of these things, combined with the effects of the 2017 storms, could be creating hazardous conditions for both our residents AND our reefs. Debris that has remained untouched for three years and the scattering of the contaminants previously identified by the NEPA studies both add insult to injury.
Concerns for the lack of cultural preservation on the property is also a huge motivating factor for David. He feels Caneel should be proclaimed a World Heritage Site based on research pointing that there could be artifacts and historical sites dating back 3000 years.
He fears, based on research he has been conducting, that artifacts predating the Taino Indians and slave burial grounds may have already been destroyed. With four different management companies since 1983 and little oversight from NPS, these could very well be the case.
His hopes with his NOI filing is that some action will be taken; quickly and properly.
“This needs to be (cleaned up) in accordance with the law,” he said. “And with Rockefeller’s wishes. Whoever operates it has to do so while protecting the environment”
If this filing gains traction and clean up does begin, his hopes for Caneel is that the RUE ends in 2023 as scheduled and that NPS keeps the property for the people to enjoy. He pondered a museum, which the local community has been devoid of since the one at the library closed (its artifacts are currently being stored at the Battery). Or maybe a Botanical garden with local vegetation?
“Talk to the people of St. John,” he said. “What do the people want it to be?”
Todd’s sentiments were similar when I asked the same question…. “We don’t speak for the community. But we hold their interests in high regard. We want to see these natural and cultural resources honored and protected. We want to see something that is contributing to the community of the Virgin Islands.”
Maybe these actions are a light on the horizon line for the future of the iconic resort that was once magnificently unique and the largest employer on St. John. In the weeks to come, I’ll be continuing updates from the perspectives of some former employees, government officials and local community leaders.
This story is long with lots of valleys. But, hopefully, there will one day be news of a somewhat happy ending.
In the meantime, if you would like to support the Friends’ efforts, please do so here! OR, if you are a community member that would like to have your ideas considered for the follow up, please email [email protected]! I would be glad to hear from everyone!