U.S. Government Sues Territory for Being Off Course with Landfill Closures

During a hearing on Tuesday at U.S. District Court on St. Thomas, legal counsel representing the U.S. government said that the V.I. government hasn’t prioritized the mandated closure of the territory’s landfills, which both parties agreed to do after signing consent decrees more than three years ago.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed the suit against the V.I. government in late November 2015 after the V.I. Waste Management Authority missed a number of deadlines for turning in closure plans and status reports for the Bovoni landfill on St. Thomas and the Anguilla landfill on St. Croix.

The federal government is seeking $2.5 million dollars from the local government and VIWMA for penalties it accumulated through October 2015 for not complying with the consent decrees.

The closure plan for the Anguilla landfill has been approved, but the EPA is still waiting for VIWMA to finish revisions to the Bovoni plan more than two years after it was first submitted. Per the consent decree, the target year for closing the Bovoni landfill is 2019 and 2020 for the Anguilla landfill.

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According to Leonard Grossman, a lead physical scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who’s been working with the territory’s landfills since 2000, the consent decrees require a number of engineering and structural improvements. These include setting up systems to prevent water contamination, to monitor groundwater, to capture gases that escape and to cap off the landfills.

A number of witnesses were called to the stand during the evidentiary hearing, including employees from the U.S. EPA, V.I. Waste Management Authority, V.I. Department of Finance and Oasis Consulting Services, the firm contracted to assist with the landfill closure design plans.

Michael Monteleone, vice president of strategic business development at Oasis Consulting Services, said the two landfills only have enough space left in them to handle waste disposal till early next year, at the most, if they’re not expanded.

He said enlarging the landfills and diverting compost and recyclables would only extend the lifetime of the landfills by two to three years.

Witnesses from VIWMA and the V.I. Department of Finance said the territory hasn’t been able to meet the deadlines for closure plans and implementing new systems due to funding shortfalls. The estimated cost of closing the Bovoni and Anguilla landfills is $115 million dollars.

The U.S. government’s counsel says that the territory’s financial troubles existed when the consent decrees were signed, so it’s up to the local government to find alternative funding through government bonds, bills or notes.

Steven Aubin, VIWMA’s acting executive director who replaced May Adams Cornwall after she retired in late February, explained that the authority has no internal revenues, since the Virgin Islands does not charge for solid waste disposal.

Aubin explained that VIWMA does have plans to implement waste disposal fees in the future but that these policies will have to be approved through the Public Services Commission.

Valdamier Collens, the V.I. Commissioner of Finance and executive director of the V.I. Public Finance Authority, stressed the importance of getting the Legislature on board with any funding bills for the landfills’ closure.

Collens said that currently there’s a funding bill being reviewed by Gov. Kenneth Mapp. If Mapp approves, then the bill will have to be approved by the Legislature. The last proposed funding bill was rejected by the Legislature in 2014.

Since the Legislature rejected the last funding bill, the U.S. government’s counsel questioned Collens about why there isn’t an alternate plan if the bill doesn’t pass again.

The counsel also noted that the V.I. government hasn’t proposed funding for over year despite the fast approaching closure deadlines and the minimal space left in both of the landfills.

Collens said the PFA can’t pursue alternate funding without the approval of the Legislature.

Throughout the hearing, witnesses noted the many environmental and health risks posed by the two landfills. Since they were constructed before new legislation was enacted, neither landfills have bottom liners, so groundwater can be contaminated with leaking toxins.

Improper disposal of tires has been a major concern at the landfills, since they can fuel surface and subsurface fires. The EPA has ordered the between 80,000 to 90,000 tires in each landfill to be removed.

Grossman said that the dense smoke and other toxicities that are released are a concern for human health, water and soil. The EPA and VIWMA don’t know for sure if the subsurface fire that started at the Bovoni landfill is completely out or not.

Once the landfills close, VIWMA will implement an integrated waste management system in which composting and recyclables are separated from trash. VIWMA has not yet decided if another landfill would be created or if trash would be compacted and sent off-island.

In closing statements, the U.S. government’s counsel said the consent decrees are clear about what they require and that they have “important health and environmental benefits for the people of the Virgin Islands.” While aware that the costly penalty would make more “financial hardship” for the territory, the counsel said it feels it’s necessary to compel the V.I. government to act.

In response, the V.I. government’s counsel asked that the penalty not be imposed, since it would further hold VIWMA back from closing the landfills.

Presiding District Judge Curtis V. Gomez asked the two parties to consider creating a fund to move the closures along. Gomez ordered both parties to submit their opinions by April 11 on if the fund should be created, how much money it should contain and what it could be used to address.

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