Balancing economic growth and development with residential settlement has always been a challenge for developing nations and town and city planners. In Saint Lucia this is certainly no exception. What was acceptable placement of residential dwellings, churches, schools, hotels and commercial housing say some thirty years ago, may not be as conducive to do so today in lieu of having selective areas for tourism, commercial, or even industrial. Take for example the recent calls made by the Saint Lucia Chamber of Commerce president Chester Hinkson for the revisiting of schools placed within the city’s perimeter. This has raised discourse for consideration to be given to the relocation of some of those inner city schools, to make way for more enterprising commercial ventures. The schools, some argue, are now exposed to noise pollution and other elements emanating from the hustle and bustle of the city, which they say does not make for effective teaching and learning. Then there was the court order last year that shut down a cement and mining plant after residents of a nearby area complained about the environmental hazard the plant was causing to their health. Now, does one local school have such redress after complaining about a six-year -old problem with an existing nearby farm, or will parents and teachers have to file a landmark class action lawsuit as a speedy solution?
After years of complaining about foul odours emanating from nearby farms, teachers and students of the Augier Primary School, had had enough and decided to stay home in 2007 for some time during the month of November. Ministry of Education officials heard their cries then and decided that the best course of action was to fumigate the school, pending an investigation as to the source and cause of the unbearable stench as well as a fly infestation. However, the Ministry’s actions may have only compounded the problem. After a weekend of fumigating the school, teachers and students returned to the school the following Monday and were welcomed by another intolerable disgusting odour, this time from the chemicals used to decontaminate the school. Not only that, the chemicals used in the fumigation appeared to have caused an allergic reaction, resulting in five persons being hospitalized.
The school term quickly came to an end in December and amidst the festive season, the problem lingered unattended.
Then in October of 2008 teachers and parents claim once again that they can no longer cope with the problem and calls in the Ministry of Education and this time the Ministry of Health. Back then the Minister of Health, Keith Mondesir, told reporters that the owners of the nearby farm had been given some measures they had to adhere to, in order to alleviate the problem. A fourteen day time-frame was given to them in which to comply, the Minister said. Education Minister Arsene James also weighed in, stating then that his Ministry was working diligently to come up with the best possible solution in the interest of students first as well as teachers, parents and the farmers.
Another year goes by and in 2009; parents and teachers claim this time that there was a growing number of students and teachers falling sick at the Augier Primary school from respiratory problems, fever and allergic reactions.
In October of 2010 teachers, parents and students stage a school strike after a week of classrooms being invaded by swarms of flies. They take to the streets with placards, garnering attention from the media. Many claim that their situation is not being looked after because, they are not one of the popular schools, or “because we have no children here from Cap Estate,” as one parent put it. A meeting is summoned with the PTA by the Ministry of Education. However, some comments made by the Permanent Secretary Rufina Frederick then, did not sit well with parents and teachers.
Tired of the promises and the waiting, one parent, Sabina Valmont told the STAR this week, that she had no choice but to seek a transfer for her nine-year-old son.
“I had him transferred right after last year’s protest after I had witnessed personally the situation with the flies and I was not going to wait around any longer to see my son fall sick.”
This reporter visited the school last week, one week after the PTA, who is now also fed up and tired of empty promises, met to draft out another of their many letters which was sent to the Ministry of Education, for a response as to their course of action to remedy the situation. On that afternoon last Wednesday, there was hardly a foul odour, but we did notice a few flies, one too many, hanging around.
Although, truth be told, there was nothing too alarming. We asked the principal Mrs Maryanne Jn Charles if the situation still existed with flies and the bad smell to which she replied in the affirmative. “The odour is not as bad right now but on certain days we still have a situation where we get a large number of flies invading the school,” she informed us.
“The last time we had that situation the Ministry officials came around and we discovered that on one of the farms there was a whole lot of flies and we were promised that something would be done about it,” she went on adding that on the school’s part the most they can do is disinfect with some bleach and disinfectant whenever the problem occurs.
Public Relations Officer of the school, Cletus Francois, says the long standing problem has gotten to a point where parents, students and teachers are at wit’s end and want the problem addressed with some urgency.
“This new PTA is about two years old and it is basically a problem we inherited because nothing was done previously. What we have done is to involve the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Planning and we actually had a meeting in October of 2010 here at the school where the PS Ms Frederick attended. At that meeting she actually implied that either we wait or close down the school and that statement angered parents the way it was said,” Francois told us hardly able to catch his breath. On that day we were told the PS and her team left, with a promise that the people responsible would do something as soon as possible, but with no time frame given.
The STAR was also informed that unlike Ministry of Health officials who of late have been refusing to dialogue with the school or the PTA, the PS of Agriculture, Mr Emmanuel, has been more responsive.
“We were informed that his Ministry would work towards relocating the nearby farm and after he visited the current location we were told that a new location, possibly in Balka was earmarked for relocation. But since then, nothing. What we want is for somebody to pay attention to the school and the health problems of the kids. There have been a growing number of students and teachers with allergies, some reporting sick very often and on certain days the smell is so bad that the school has to be closed down and this affects our children’s learning,” Francois told stated.
The executive of the PTA admits that they have nothing conclusive as to what is affecting the quality of health of their children at the Augier School and the teachers and simply want the matter thoroughly investigated and a course of action taken.
“We just wrote a letter to environmental health asking for some kind of quality check for the air that is circulated around the atmosphere in the school to find out whether there are any foreign particles in the air that could cause sinuses and allergies and what the long term effects are,” the VP of the PTA told us.
The PTA says there is another problem which they have written to the Ministry of Education about and are still waiting an answer. Just over a year ago, the asbestos roofing of the school was removed and the contractors buried the asbestos waste right on the school grounds, just a few feet deep.
“Again we know that this can pose a problem for our children, this is where they play, where they eat and no one is saying anything to us,” the VP informed us.
The PTA next course of action is to wait for a response from the Ministry of Education and meet again soon to strategize.
The Augier Primary School which is located in Augier, Vieux Fort has been in existence now from 1950.
The school sits between two farms both a few hundred yards away. One is a pig farm which was once a major concern and the poultry farm which school officials say is the source of their problems now. That particular chicken farm supplies about twenty-five percent of the islands’ eggs to supermarkets here.
(In next Saturday’s STAR the chicken farmer from Augier tells her side of the story, for the first time.)