How the government monitors Hovensa’s emissions and deals with the "red mud" generated by the former Alcoa aluminum plant on St. Croix were the focus of senators’ concerns Friday as Planning and Natural Resources officials stepped up to the plate for summer budget hearings.
DPNR Commissioner Robert Mathes said the mud – an enormous red hillock of dusty bauxite tailings – has long been a concern of the department, but is now tied up in a lawsuit that’s kept any solutions on how to stabilize it from moving forward. Mathes explained that the mud continues to move its way toward the coast, and cautioned senators that if something isn’t done, St. Croix might "end up with a red stain in the water."
After the hearing, Mathes said the government hopes to work out some kind of settlement of understanding with St. Croix Renaissance that would help improve the situation.
Meanwhile, senators also grilled Mathes and his team on the department’s efforts to monitor Hovensa’s pollution – namely, its gas emissions and any environmental contaminants that might be seeping into the ground and affecting everything from the groundwater to marine life on the south shore.
The question and answer segment got a bit heated after Nadine Norhassan, head of DPNR’s Environmental Protection Division, explained that while people do go out to monitor, the final call on any decisions lies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has jurisdiction over such issues. A couple of senators, such as Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, requested that DPNR play a more active role regardless, since its employees live here in the territory.
The rest of the hearing covered a wide range of questions from continuing work on Fort Christian to bringing on more inspectors throughout the territory so that building and construction permits don’t continue to be held up.
State Historic Preservation Office head Lorna Thomas said the government would need another $2 million to make the building "acceptable" to the public. The Fort Christian project had already eaten up money provided by the Public Finance Authority and most of what was allocated in Federal Highway Administration funds, leaving the government to find a way to make up the difference, she said. Thomas added, however, that Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls has discussed the possibility of putting more FHA money toward the project once issues now being negotiated with the contactor are resolved.
Switching to the budgetary concerns, Sen. Louis P. Hill said the department’s slow permitting process, particularly in the areas of building and construction permits, have been a challenge "for years," and suggested – once Mathes explained that low salaries keep the department from attracted qualified workers – that the government resolve, once and for all, the issues with its pay scale.
DPNR officials also said two relevant positions were eliminated for budgetary reasons, but will need to be reinstated once construction picks up again.
The department’s proposed General Fund budget for fiscal year 2011 is approximately $7.9 million. It also expects to receive $16.5 million in federal grants and $4.3 million in special funds, for an overall budget of $28.7 million.
Meanwhile, the V.I. Council on the Arts and V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute – housed under DPNR – will receive $743,208 and $290,000, respectively, from appropriations in the miscellaneous section of the budget.
The proposed General Fund appropriation represents a $688,066 decrease over this year’s appropriation, Mathes said.
Another of the government’s biggest departments, Finance, also presented Friday during a shorter and less contentious hearing consisting of only a couple of rounds of questions from senators, who asked about the status of tax returns and how the government plans to divvy up the money its borrowed to keep operations stable during fiscal years 2010 and 2011.
Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson said the returns and stimulus payments are basically current, so far totaling $85 million for FY 2010.
Finance’s proposed General Fund budget for FY 2011 totals $6.6 million, which will be put together with $716,909 from the Government Insurance Fund and $2.5 million from the Indirect Cost Fund, for an overall $9.8 million budget.
Of that amount, $4.2 million will be put toward personnel services, $1.4 million for fringe benefits, $290,960 for supplies, $3.2 million for other services and charges and $581,000 for utilities.
Present during Friday’s hearings were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Hill, Wayne James, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Rivera-O’Reilly, Sammuel Sanes and Patrick Simeon Sprauve.