Handsome Bay sargassum
A backhoe works to clear sargassum off the shoreline at Handsome Bay on Sept. 4. That day, the seaweed covered much of the bay, which is the location of the intake pipe to Virgin Gorda’s desalination plant. (Photo: ANIKA CHRISTOPHER)

Faced with complaints about smelly public water on Virgin Gorda, government announced Sept. 1 that it had resolved the problem by flushing waterlines and cleaning sargassum from Handsome Bay near the island’s desalination plant.

But this week, residents told a very different story.

“It hasn’t gotten any better at all,” Pop Stevens said Sept. 5, adding, “They didn’t fix anything; they just made that statement.”

Mr. Stevens and other VG residents said the island has been plagued for months with foul odours and water shutoffs often linked to the government’s ongoing failure to adequately manage the sargassum seaweed washing up along the island’s eastern coast.

Virgin Gorda water plant
The intake valve for the desalination plant on Virgin Gorda (at right) extends into Handsome Bay, which has been largely covered with sargassum in recent weeks. (Photo: ANIKA CHRISTOPHER)
Health concern

For Mr. Stevens, a computer technician and businessman, the issue is a major health concern.

“If you live close to Handsome Bay, everything that is in your house that was a fixture and was chrome or silver or polished — it’s now black,” he said. “And what we’re thinking is if it’s turning that black, what is it doing to our lungs? Because we inhale it.”

Virgin Gorda contractor Christina Yates shared similar concerns, adding that the sargassum influx has been particularly heavy in recent weeks.

“This is as bad as we’ve seen it,” she said, adding, “When you take a shower, you come out smelling like sulphur dioxide — like bad eggs.”

But this week, Ms. Yates said she didn’t even know if the public water still stinks or not.

“Where I live up on Windy Hill, I have to say we haven’t got any government water for a week or ten days, so I wouldn’t know,” she said on Sept. 5, adding that such water shutoffs are common on the island. “The water plant is running at about one-third capacity because they got seaweed in the pipes.”

WSD statement

In a Friday press release, acting Water and Sewage Department Director Brian Davis sought to reassure VG residents that government had taken the needed action to eliminate the public water’s odour and address any other risks.

“Firstly, the Water and Sewerage Department conducted tests early this morning at various sample points, including the water plant, the reservoir, as well as North and South Valley areas in the distribution system,” Mr. Davis said.

“The results confirmed that there was no bacteria found in the water.”

Additionally, WSD personnel flushed the lines in “areas that are considered dead-end to eliminate stagnant [water] and any compromised quality of foul odour,” the release stated.

Meanwhile, he said, the cleanup of the sargassum build-up along the Handsome Bay shoreline was under way.

Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer also apologised to residents and “assured them that the matter has been resolved,” according to the press release.

“As minister responsible for the subject, I would like to thank all the stakeholders — the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Water and Sewerage Department, and the Handsome Bay water plant — who played a role in speedily resolving this matter,” he said.


Handsome Bay sargassum
Sargassum lined the shore at Handsome Bay on Sept. 4. (Photo: ANIKA CHRISTOPHER)
Backhoe on the beach

On Sept. 4, however, Handsome Bay was still filled with sargassum, and a backhoe was moving beached seaweed into piles along the shoreline.

Mr. Stevens — who said any sargassum collected in this manner is typically hauled to the island’s dump — doesn’t believe this solution is optimal.

“They let it pile up for six to eight months, and they send up an excavator in there,” he said. “What they should be doing is every few days put the excavator in there for one hour. If it piles up, it rots, it sinks — and then the tide pulls it out to the intake for the water plant.”

He added that he suspects the backhoe creates risks of its own.

“I’m thinking it does more harm than good, because what they’re doing is they’re picking up the seaweed, but they’re also picking up the sand on the beach with it,” he said.

Tourists confused

Sargassum is also affecting the tourism industry, he added.

“[Tourists] want to know if we have open-pit septics here, because that’s what it smells like,” he said.

“And we have to explain to them this is the seaweed. But they’re not used to that. If I’m going to a country where I’m smelling that all the time, I want to go home.”

Sharon Flax-Brutus, who has managed the Mahoe Bay Villas on Virgin Gorda for about three years, said the recent water shutoffs are part of a longstanding issue that frequently forces the resort to truck in its own water.

“It’s not a continuous supply of water,” she said. “They turn it on and off.”

Ms. Flax-Brutus, a former director of the BVI Tourist Board, added that basic infrastructure is crucial to the government’s often-stated plans to expand the tourism industry in the territory.

“How can you tell someone who’s in a villa paying $2,000 a night, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s no water’?” she asked.

Like Mr. Stevens, she is sceptical of the government’s Sept. 1 claim that the situation had been resolved.

“I think it’s not true to say the situation is fixed, because you’re having the water rationing, and we’re in September with very low occupancy,” she said.

‘It’s money’

Ms. Yates said she suspects the government’s failure to address the sargassum issue comes down to dollars and cents.

“It’s money,” she said. “It costs money to haul it away.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Davis, the WSD head, were not immediately successful.