In a hearing that was meant to be more talk than action, little could be said about ongoing repairs to historic Fort Christian on St. Thomas because a lawsuit filed by the project’s contractor forced officials to keep quiet about the details.
While there was one bill on the agenda, Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate’s Planning and Environmental Protection Committee really gave local officials and community activists a chance to dialogue on a range of issues, including challenges with the territory’s coastal zone permitting laws, the need for more composting and recycling programs and, in the afternoon, an update on the Fort Christian renovation, which has been ongoing since 2005.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., sought clarification on certain definitions within the coastal zoning code, which many testifying Tuesday said was needed, but appeared to make things more problematic by inserting new language for the term "repair," by stating that "no coastal zone permit shall be required…for activities related to the repair or maintenance of an object or facility located in the coastal zone" if the repairs do not include additions or expansions.
Coastal Zone Management’s attorney Winston Braithwaite said the section "opened up a can of worms" because it removed oversight from the Senate and the public at-large over certain permits.
"Not everyone is going to do it the right way," Braithwaite said, adding that there needs to be more regulation. Echoing remarks made by League of Women Voters representative and local environmental stalwart Helen Gjessing, Braithwaite said any changes to the code need to be done holistically instead of "in a piecemeal fashion," and explained that he had already been in the process of reviewing the code to see where it could be amended.
Gjessing added during the hearing that a change that may seem insubstantial to some might have substantial consequences to the public or environment. Senators voted to hold the bill in committee for further consideration, and Braithwaite was asked by committee chairman Sen. Louis P. Hill to submit his proposed changes for review.
The afternoon kicked off with a discussion on mandatory composting and recycling laws, which Hill said he would be pushing as the term continues. As various local environmentalists came forward in support of the idea and detailed programs already set up within their own organizations, the most succinct argument came from St. John resident Paul Devine, who read into the record a letter from Community Environmental Services engineer Susan M. Parten that compared the efficiency and cost of composting with recent plans to bring waste-to-energy facilities to the territory.
Ultimately, the Senate ended up killing the deal that would have allowed Alpine Energy Group to build waste-to-energy plants on St. Thomas and St. Croix, on the basis that the company’s initial plans to burn pet coke along with trash would pose an environmental hazard. Alpine has recently applied for a permit — which is set to be heard before the CZM Commission next week — for a smaller-scale project that eliminates the pet coke and simply focuses on waste.
"Time is of the essence as we move forward with waste management solutions," Parten’s letter stated. "There is simply no assurance that EPA [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] would even approve a waste-to-energy operation as currently proposed, given that they’ve reportedly not yet received critical air emissions data requested. But large-scale composting operations could be put online within a year’s time, both on St. Thomas and St. Croix, if we commit ourselves to it and get going…right now."
Switching gears for the last section of the hearing, DPNR and Public Works officials amassed to give a background on the ongoing Fort Christian renovation project but provided scant testimony on its progress to date, saying that the project’s contractor had slapped the government with a suit for $2 million.
The initial notice to proceed on the project was issued in May 2005, with an estimated completion time of one year. The discovery of asbestos and lead at the fort pushed the completion date back to Dec. 2006, but subsequent concerns from contractor Tip Top Construction over lack of payment and other "unresolved issues" eventually forced a work stoppage from August 2006 until June 25, 2007, according to Public Works Territorial Highway Program Manager Wystan Benjamin.
While it appeared that officials had begun to consider terminating Tip Top’s contract in September 2006 after a series of back and forths between the contractors, Public Works and OSHA, continuous funding concerns kept any serious progress from being made. Still, Tip Top’s contract remained intact until about two months ago, when Property and Procurement issued a termination letter.
At this point, Benjamin explained, Tip Top has filed suit against the government alleging the company is owed $2 million.
"Naturally, we denied that Tip Top Construction is owed any money," Benjamin added, saying that Public Works had made numerous attempts to salvage the project, but that communications with its contractor broke down "some time ago."
"We believe we have fulfilled all obligations to Tip Top. As a matter of fact, we believe that Tip Top owes the government," he said.
Senators’ attempts to figure out what the next step is were met by careful statements from Benjamin and Justice’s Deputy Attorney General Wayne Anderson, who said that nothing really could be said until the legalities are resolved. Even a question by Sen. Craig W. Barshinger about how the dispute with Tip Top could have been avoided could not be answered, as Anderson said the lawsuit was very "general" and dealt with a range of issues that would have to be discussed in court.
Frustrated by the lack of details, Barshinger and Hill then asked Public Works to at least clean up the outside of the fort, which is surrounded by a wooden fencing on one side that they said was in dire need of paint. While Benjamin said officials have been conducting meetings to figure out what the government can do to push forward with the project in the meantime, he asked that the senators put their suggestions in writing and send them to the department because there’s no telling at this point when work will begin again.
With nothing left to say, Hill adjourned the meeting amidst Benjamin’s assurances that Public Works is "committed" to getting the work done as soon as possible.
Also present Tuesday’s meeting were Sens. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Patrick Simeon Sprauve.