The territory’s utility agencies and companies received kudos and criticism Tuesday after updating the Public Services Commission on hurricane recovery efforts.
The V.I. Water and Power Authority presented a detailed background of the damages caused by two category-five hurricanes in September and the work being done to re-energize the islands – striving for full restoration by February.
WAPA lost total generating ability on St. Thomas and St. John after Hurricane Irma and had restored about five percent when Hurricane Maria struck on Sept. 19. Only four percent of St. Croix’s customers lost power during Irma.
St. Croix’s Richmond power plant did not power down during Irma and Maria, according to Clinton Hedrington, WAPA’s acting executive director, but almost all of the overhead distribution lines incurred damage.
None of the WAPA propane tanks were damaged by either storm.
Recovery has meant more than 13, 000 poles and 5,336 transformers being replaced or repaired with the help of as many as 1,000 off-island line workers. As of Dec. 18, more than 61percent of WAPA’s electric customers and 99 percent of water customers have been restored.
In October, WAPA obligations totaled $160 million. Originally, WAPA was scheduled to seek an increase in the levelized energy adjustment clause (LEAC) but withdrew the request Tuesday. WAPA has already received $31 million in FEMA funds for debt service and expects another $44 million for future needs.
“The Public Service Commission has to take the lead with this utility and get it out of debt,” Commissioner Kent Bernier, Sr. said, voicing the possibility a LEAC increase might not be necessary.
Public Service commissioners commended WAPA on its progress but leveled harsh criticism about delays to move forward in negotiations with alternative and renewable energy projects, including one that has been in the works for two and a half years.
“How can you afford to turn these projects down? We’ve given two extensions today because you can’t complete a process,” Commissioner David Hughes said, adding that the PSC will expect resolution at the next meeting.
Ferry service comes under the purview of the PSC, and representatives for Varlack Ventures, Inc., and Transportation Services of St. John reported anticipated revenue losses in the millions due to damage to their ferryboats, infrastructure and a decrease in passengers.
Charlene Turnbull said three of four St. John ferries are out of service while Darice Varlack said her company had minimum damage. PSC commissioners voted to allow an interim rate 25-cent increase for non-resident passengers. The ferries had requested a permanent increase.
The telecommunications company, Viya, gave a short presentation and met with commissioners during an executive session to discuss its request for confidentiality regarding certain business information. As a result, the board postponed action regarding assessment fees.
However, before leaving, criticism was directed at Louis Minion, Viya comptroller, and Ernest Spicer, senior vice president of operations. Viviana Matthew James, former Viya employee, asked why the company did not provide a restoration schedule, disclose the number of customers with restored phone lines and why additional staff was not hired to deal with recovery. Her questions were not answered.
Community activist Eurman Fahie complained that phone lines left on the ground as debris caused traffic problems.
Spicer said the company hired 80 local workers to follow WAPA trucks and clean debris including phone lines.
“We’re not seeing what you represent. We’re not seeing crews follow WAPA around. That’s what you’re hearing, in a major way, from the community,” said PSC Commissioner Raymond Williams.
PSC General Counsel Joss Springette also complained about the company. Instructions were unclear how register for Viya’s lottery system to reconnect customers to the internet, she said.
Vincent Ebbesen, solid waste director for the V.I. Waste Management Authority, read a report, originally presented to the 32nd Legislature, on behalf of Roger Merritt, executive director, and said all VIWMA facilities and most sewer lines were damaged during the storms. He was questioned by commissioners who doubted the agency will work quickly enough to qualify for FEMA reimbursement for debris removal. They also asked several times about paying trash haulers. Ebbesen said Public Works is responsible for picking up debris and paying trucking companies.
Commissioner Kent Bernier, Sr. said the “bigger issue” is where debris will be stored since the territory’s dumpsites are already full and under federal order to close.
“This body holds Waste Management responsible, not the Army Corps or FEMA,” Commissioner Johann Clendenin said.
At the beginning of the meeting, the PSC elected officers for 2018: Raymond Williams will replace Andrew Rutnik as chair and David Hughes replaces Williams as vice chair. Sen. Marvin Blyden also attended the meeting.