Dec. 22, 2003 – Even though legislation establishing a Waste Management Authority passed its final Senate hurdle last week and will shortly be on Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's desk, where it is all but certain to be signed, that hasn't quieted the bill's detractors.
More than 20 years in the talking stage, the measure was the subject of many committee hearings this year after Sen. Louis Hill introduced it. But the idea still hasn't had enough public input, some senators say. And others insist that the Public Works Department should handle waste utilizing federal grant money.
Meanwhile, reports of untreated sewage flowing in the streets and into the harbors of St. Croix remain common. Since the 1980s, the federal government has repeatedly ordered the territory to deal with its waste management deficiencies and imposed fines for its failure to do so. Proponents of the Waste Management Authority say such an agency represents the only way the situation can be taken in hand.
"Though it may not be a perfect bill," Hill said in the full Senate session last week, "it can be amended. But let us get started. There is raw sewage in the streets of St. Croix, and we are under court order to clean it up."
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone issued a release on Friday disputing that. Hill and Sonya Nelthropp, Public Works senior manager for federal compliance — with whom Hill had worked closely with for the past year and a half, took issue with Malone's statements.
Malone said the authority is "not the best and suitable measure to deal with our waste problems." He suggested that the government seek "alternative methods through federal grants accessible and available to us, and staff the Public Works Department with competent professionals."
According to Malone, there is "$26.5 million available in federal grants and bond monies to deal without wastewater issues: $5 million to construct two treatment plants; a possible $4 million from USDA [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] for collection and treatment; $16.5 million from the Public Finance Authority to build treatment plants; and an additional $5 million for sewage treatment facility repairs."
He also said "the $4 million appropriation in the bill, which was placed after the [fiscal year 2004] budget was passed by the Legislature, is not necessary or justified."
Not so, say Hill and Nelthropp.
Hill accused Malone of not having done his homework. "If he had studied the budget, he would have noticed the governor identified $8 million for start-up costs for the authority," Hill said. "We reduced it to $4 million because we knew we had other resources."
Malone had "ample opportunity" to voice objections and offer amendments to the bill during the legislative process, Hill said. "He has made no amendments and offered no changes. He should have participated in the process that was afforded him."
Hill added: "I'm disappointed that Sen. Malone issued that release, because he says several things that are without basis. For instance, he says there has been $5 million identified for two treatment plants — $5 million couldn't construct half a treatment plant."
Malone also said the governor "should be cautioned about the bonding authority this authority would have that would place residents of this territory in more debt while being taxed to dispose of their garbage." He pointed out that "the PFA was created to finance major government capital projects — for instance, the $21 million in bonds that were issued to address the territory's waste management problems in the most recent bond issue."
Nelthropp appeared perplexed at Malone's statements. "The money he is talking about, federal grants and bond money, can only be used for capital improvements, not operations," she said. "The problem is operating and maintaining the plants. The cost of two new sewage treatment plants is in excess of $45 million. We would have to get $21.5 million from the PFA, and we got $16.5. To operate the plants on an annual basis is about $4 million to $6 million."
She continued: "I don't know where Sen. Malone got the $26.5 million in federal grants from. We have to compete with 50 states for this money. We get it according to a percentage of the population; so, what's available to us is about $600,000 after what Puerto Rico takes out. And, again, it's for capital projects. It can't be used for operations and maintenance."
However, Nelthropp said she's willing to listen to options. "If he has a creative and alternative way to handle waste problems, by all means he should share it with us, and we can move ahead on it," she said. "Right now, we are using all the grants and bonds we can get."
Sens. Lorraine Berry and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg also have been critical of the planned authority, both saying it needs further study.
Hill said on Monday that there has been enough public input. "In fact," he said, "public input is what has made the bill so comprehensive and such an overwhelming success." He said that he and Nelthropp between them "have appeared on no less than 21 radio talk shows and numerous TV talk shows on both islands over the past year and a half." He said all of his committee meetings on the bill were publicly announced by the media, and all had media coverage.
Berry and Donastorg said in last week's Senate session that the bill isn't workable. Berry said time is needed for more study. "I commend Sen. Hill," she said. "This is something we have talked about for several years. But I am very concerned with the proposal. I have total confidence in Sonya Nelthropp's ability, but I am not convinced this is the way to go."
There are other ways and means to deal with the issue, and funds are available, Berry told her colleagues. "I believe we need to reflect on what we are doing here," she said. "It should be sent back to the committee. I am not prepared to vote for it tonight. I am not saying I'd never be prepared."
Donastorg said the authority "would create another level of bureaucracy. If it passed, within the next few days you would hear people asking the governor to veto it. We can't find the money for DPW to address the same problem. If you're not changing the players, how do you change anything?"
A motion by Donastorg on the Senate floor to send the bill back to the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee failed.
The bill itself passed on a vote of 9-6. Voting in favor were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Hill, David Jones, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell. Voting against were Berry, Donastorg, Norman Jn Baptiste, Malone, Usie Richards and Celestino A. White Sr.
Hill said the measure should be on the governor's desk by Tuesday. The governor has 10 days to act on bills, excluding Sundays and holidays.
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