The National Park Service on Thursday began a new phase of environmental site assessments at Caneel Bay Resort on St. John, an effort poised to bring the storm-damaged retreat one step closer to reopening.

According to a Park Service statement, the assessments will identify the “nature and extent” of possible environmental contamination on the property. Sampling and analysis will take place over the next several weeks, followed by laboratory analysis and evaluation of potential risks to human health and the environment.

The evaluation will be centered on three locations identified during previous assessments and surveys, including:

• 1.7 acres near wastewater treatment plant structures, located on the southeastern side of the resort,

• 5.4 acres that encompass the engineering, maintenance, landscaping and fuel buildings and facilities, located to the southwest of the wastewater treatment plant,

• A .5-acre debris landfill located immediately east of Honeymoon Beach.

The Park Service said these areas will be examined for the presence of contaminants, including pesticides, cleaning and landscaping chemicals and petrochemicals. The Park Service will collect preliminary data about the possible presence of lead-based paint and asbestos and determine if further analysis is needed. In the statement, Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent Nigel Fields said the assessments are “critical to the future health and vitality of St. John” and help advance the National Park Service’s commitment to environmental stewardship.

Data collected during the assessment will be used to inform details of a future lease. The Park Service said removal actions will only be required if unacceptable contamination or associated risks are identified. The public will have opportunities to comment on possible approaches.

The announcement is likely welcome news to St. John residents and groups like Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, who have long voiced concern about the environmental upkeep of the Caneel Bay property.

In a recent interview with The Daily News, Friends President Todd Sampsell said any deal to reopen the resort should include a “plan for fully researching and remediating the contamination that’s on the property to make sure it’s safe for people and the environment.”

In December, the Park Service announced that Interior officials and EHI Acquisitions — an affiliate of resort owner CBI Acquisitions — agreed to reenter lease negotiations to reopen Caneel Bay. The resort has been shuttered since hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and remains embroiled in a contentious fight over its restoration and future management.

Since the resort operates under a Retained Use Estate (RUE), resort owners like CBI Acquisitions have operated the resort on park land for zero rent, under the assumption the property will transfer to park ownership in 2023 when the RUE expires.

In 2010, legislation was passed to have CBI Acquisitions enter into a 40-year lease agreement that would have extinguished the RUE altogether. However, allegations of environmental neglect, coupled with the hurricanes, disrupted those negotiations.

CBI Acquisitions has since lobbied for a 60-year no-bid lease extension as an incentive to rebuild the resort and recoup a purported $100 million reinvestment, a position that drew widespread backlash from St. John residents.

Those residents viewed the deal as a money grab by an owner who has failed to maintain the parkland properly.

Shortly after the Park Service announced its decision to reenter lease negotiations, V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett penned a letter to the U.S. Interior Department seeking transparency on the deal.

The letter, which was sent to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and co-signed by chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Raul Grijalva, requested the term sheet agreed to between the department and resort owner CBI Acquisitions, as well as a briefing on the negotiations.

— Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email