During a federal court hearing on Wednesday morning on St. Thomas, the V.I. Waste Management Authority was scrutinized for failing to address longstanding wastewater issues on time despite federal funding being readily available to so.
Missing deadlines is a common occurrence for V.I. Waste Management, said Honorable Curtis V. Gomez, U.S. District Judge for the District Court of the Virgin Islands. Gomez said that to his knowledge not one target date has been met since the Environmental Protection Agency filed the case in 1984 after the territory violated the Clean Water Act.
According to the EPA, the consent decree was designed to address infrastructure problems at wastewater treatment plants and stations that rely on one pump, yet deteriorating infrastructure continues to be an issue.
Manhole overflows and pump failures that have led to raw sewage being pumped into the territory’s waters have plagued both the St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John districts over the last several years, but incidences have been more frequent on St. Thomas.
During his testimony, Pedro A. Modesto, an environmental and civil engineer with the EPA, testified that inadequate staffing plays a key role in St. Thomas’s poor performance. He said that under the consent decree, the VIWMA was required to hire three additional wastewater employees but it has only hired one. The authority is also short by one engineer.
When pressed on why St. Thomas has experienced more issues, VIWMA Executive Director Roger Merritt said that St. Thomas’s steep terrain and high volume of sewer lines led to an upward trend in issues.
The steeper terrain leads to rocks and other debris, especially from construction sites, washing into sewer grates and clogging lines. When restaurants flush grease down their pipes, it also leads to more blockages.
Gomez’s questions focused largely on if the authority feels any sense of urgency in completing projects that must be finished to satisfy the decree. He also expressed concern over the public being exposed to raw sewage and wondered if VIWMA is working with local health officials to educate the community about the potential hazards.
New to the VIWMA, Merritt said he has met with the Department of Natural Resources to discuss the health issues and that he is planning to meet with the Department of Health in the near future. He’s been in his position since November 2016.
Merritt explained that he’s been reviewing the authority’s operations funds that are generated locally, as well as federal funding, which is available to complete the consent decree projects.
Representatives from the EPA say that even though there is adequate federal funding for the projects, the authority hasn’t used it.
For that reason, Merritt said he is working with Civil and Environmental Consultants, a wastewater consulting group based in Pittsburgh, to help review all of the EPA grants that are available to fund the project, with priority being given to the ones that are set to expire soon.
Given the authority’s past poor performance with meeting the agreed upon deadlines, Gomez questioned Merritt on when a new set of realistic deadlines would be put forth.
According to Merritt, he’ll be able to present a set of deadlines to the court in the next 30 days.
“Going forward we need to have a plan to be more proactive than reactive,” Merritt said.
The consulting firm is also helping Merritt with staffing issues. Merritt said he wants to review the authority’s organizational structure to make sure everyone’s skills are being put to best use.
In addition to being behind on consent decree deadlines, the authority faces major financial issues. Currently VIWMA has $10 million in outstanding invoices that is owed to solid waste and wastewater contractors.
Donald Frankel, an attorney in the U.S. Justice Department that represents the EPA, asked Merritt if the authority has adequate funding for operations. Merritt told the court that the $32 million operational budget isn’t enough to cover annual expenses.
Merritt said 60 to 70 percent of the budget – about $22 million – comes from the central government’s General fund. Another roughly $5 million comes from the $110 sewer tax fees that property owners pay each year, which Merritt said will likely need to be raised to supplement the budget.
To get on track, Frankel said that VIWMA and the EPA need to start meeting more frequently and suggested they convene every two weeks or every month.
“There is funding for what needs to be done, but there’s a failure to execute – 1984 is a long time for things to happen,” Gomez said.