June 29, 2004 The territory's new Waste Management Authority got a vote of confidence Tuesday morning and thumbs up on its funding concept.
Susan Richardson, an Atlanta environmental attorney, said the territory's waste problems are not unique; nor are the Environmental Protection Agency consent decrees under which the territory is now operating. She said at least 30 other jurisdictions are operating under the decrees.
"Atlanta is operating under two consent decrees, one of which for a combined sewer system has a 2007 deadline," she told the Rotary Club of Saint Thomas Sunrise members.
"The Virgin Islands' problems are similar to Atlanta's," she said, even though Atlanta's population is larger by 200,000. She said the territory and Atlanta have similar backgrounds in running around "putting out fires." In other words, reacting to broken pipes, or whatever problem, as it occurs. Both Atlanta and the territory have "antiquated sewer systems, pipes about the same age and the same condition, continually breaking down," she said.
"We have moved to a proactive process, working on the problems before they occur," she said. And this is what she sees the newly created authority in the territory doing.
She described the city after it hosted the 1996 Olympics. "Everything shifted in terms of wastewater issues. The government was disjointed. We had to address the serious issues we had what were called 'fecal fountains.' These were the overflowing manholes, the combined sewage systems causing them to pop out of the ground," she said. Citizens groups sued the city, saying this was "unacceptable."
Richardson said her group works with the municipal government. "We represent the city, instead of a separate authority." She is a partner with the Wastewater Enforcement Projects Group of the International law firm Kilpatrick Stockton, which works with the city government in negotiating federal consent decrees with the EPA.
Richardson said the territory is "headed in the right direction," with the creation of the WMA. "It's where the EPA wants you to go." Asked what she sees as the biggest problem the Virgin Islands faces with waste management, Richardson replied immediately, "getting funds together. Getting focused resources, where they cannot be diverted for other uses."
"The federal government isn't going to take care of it," she said. "They may issue grants for $3 million or $4 million, but that doesn't get anywhere. You need to float bonds."
Atlanta has raised about $751 million in bonds and raised its sewer usage fees 45 percent. According to Richardson, the fees, which are combined with water fees, will go up another 45 percent next year.
"Before last year, " she said, "the city hadn't raised the sewer fees in 10 years."
Earlier this month, the V.I. Public Finance Authority board unanimously authorized the issuance and sale of $105 million in matching fund loan notes intended to help get the territory's Waste Management Authority up and running. About $70 million of the proceeds will go to the authority. The authority will have the ability to float its own bonds in the future.
Richardson approved of the environmental user fee, which residents will be paying to ultimately fund the WMA totally.
Sen. Louis Hill sponsored the bill, which after more than 20 years of talk, created the WMA. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, a proponent of the measure, signed the bill into law in January. However, he did so with reservations.
He sent down amendments to the bill, which were approved by the Rules Committee last week. They will probably reach the full Senate in a July session.
James O'Bryan, St. Thomas-Water Island administrator and Government House spokesman, shared the dais with Richardson.
He agreed in Richards's "putting out fires" assessment. "I have the duty almost daily to send out releases about sewage repairs," he said. He held citizens responsible to a degree. "Somebody will call and complain about a sewage backup and we find it is a restaurant's grease that is backing things up. We need the citizens' cooperation."
O'Bryan praised the formation of the WMA.
O'Bryan said the governor's Abandoned Car and Beautification Task Force, which O'Bryan chairs, has collected more than 2,000 derelict cars, but has been stalled because the "dump can't take anymore." He said he hopes it will restart in July.
The task force also needs the cooperation of the public, he said. "People threaten us because we are taking cars from their neighborhoods where they may have been storing contraband."
O'Bryan provided an update on other matters. He said tourism was up 28 percent for the month of April and he said efforts are being made to get a fire station up on Water Island. The federal government is slated to cede final control of the island to the local government in July.
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