St. Croix Concrete Block Plant Controversy Builds

Owners of a trucking company claim their proposed concrete block plant has been misunderstood by people living near their Estate Orange Grove warehouse. The relatively-small operation would simply press concrete into blocks, not create the cement itself, they said. (Submitted photo)

Proponents and opponents of a controversial zoning variance, allowing industrial activity in a mixed commercial and residential area of St. Croix, continued to push their cases Tuesday.

An online petition against the concrete block plant had gathered more than 900 signatures asking Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. to veto the variance. The company wanting to build the factory accused the Department of Planning and Natural Resources of misrepresenting its intentions.

On April 14, the Senate approved the variance despite recommendations from DPNR that the Estate Orange Grove site does not allow industrial activity. Representatives of Just Right Trucking & Trash Removal accused DPNR of not understanding the proposed plan and petition signers of spreading false information.

“Just Right is not building a cement plant,” said Just Right representative Winston Nugent in a letter to the Source. “A plant for making concrete blocks is being built. This new block plant will be computerized and use the latest technology. There will be no negative imposition on our environment. In their analytical presentation, DPNR did not mention this fact.”

Just Right owner Mitch Matthew Sr. said the new plant would not create the dust and noise petition petitioners worried about. Aside from a slight increase in traffic from his customers, Matthew said the area will remain much the same as it is now.

The DPNR report did list the proposed use for the site as a concrete block plant, not a concrete factory, but sided with people living and working nearby who said the existing facility is already an eyesore and further industrialization of the area would be out of place with the commercial and residential nature of the area.

Currently, Just Right uses the nearly 2 acres as a base for its fleet of trash bins, trucks, heavy equipment, and a 5,000-gallon fuel storage tank, according to DPNR. It has a 10,000-square-foot, 24-foot-high warehouse that Matthew wants to use for cement block manufacturing operations. Operated Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the block factory would employ roughly five more people than the 15 Just Right already has on staff.

The DPNR report said the environmental impact of an enclosed cement block manufacturing operation was not clear but that the “area’s development has proven incompatible with not only the area’s established character but also the area topography, aesthetics, and traffic pattern.”

Nugent lashed out at DPNR and petitioners, saying they willfully misunderstood the difference between a concrete manufacturing plant and a concrete block plant. One uses hazardous chemicals and creates noise and dust, while the other simply presses concrete into shapes for building materials.

“Cement block plants use raw materials like sand, cement, and water to make different kinds of concrete blocks. Then, this mixture is poured into molds that give the concrete blocks their final shape,” Nugent wrote. “Cement is a building material that is made by heating mixtures of limestone and other minerals or additives at high temperatures in a rotary kiln to make clinker. Then, the clinker is cooled and blended additives are ground with the clinker. Finished cement is a powder that is mixed with water, sand, and gravel to make concrete and mortar. This is not the plant Just Right requested for a variance.”

Nugent also claimed DPNR was unduly influenced by residents against the zoning variance who sought to thwart Black business ownership.

“For almost 40 years DPNR has been dreaming on monkey mountain as it pertained to a land and a water use plant [sic]. They conveniently used this plan to discourage Virgin Islanders form [sic] becoming entrepreneurs,” Nugent wrote.

Jamal Nielsen, a DPNR spokesman, said Nugent was “creating a false narrative” of oppression.

“Cement plant or concrete block manufacturer … still an industrial zone activity,” Nielsen told the Source. “Our analysis was based on the appropriateness of the site.”

Meanwhile, the online petition asking Bryan to veto the Senate’s approval of the zoning variance has swelled from 775 signatures a week ago to 904 by Tuesday afternoon. The petition asks signers to tell the governor the plant itself is not the issue, simply the location.