In spite of the challenges presented by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the V.I. Water and Power Authority won praise in District Court Monday for meeting its obligation to improve air quality around the Randolph Harley Power Plant.
District Court Judge Curtis Gomez called it refreshing to see WAPA meet the terms of a federal consent decree while at the same time juggling service restoration after September’s hurricanes wrecked the electrical grid.
Of the six federal compliance cases now active in District Court, WAPA’s is one of the most reassuring, Gomez said.
The consent decree entered with the U.S. Department of Justice Division of Environmental and Natural Resources calls on the utility to have generators burning 85 percent propane in order to meet standards set by the Clean Air Act.
Under the consent decree, WAPA is directed to limit emissions of airborne pollutants, increase monitoring, produce data for inspection, conduct tests and audits of the generating system and report noncompliance in a timely manner.
Storm damage and subsequent delays have pushed back the mandated deadline for the conversion of generators at Harley Power Plant to be able to burn liquefied propane gas as well as crude oil.
While the interrupted conversion schedule on St. Thomas counts as noncompliance, lawyers for WAPA invoked a provision called Force Majeure due to the hurricanes. Under the decree, Force Majeure is defined as, “ … any event arising from causes beyond the control of the Defendant, of any entity controlled by the Defendant or of Defendant’s contractors that delays or prevents performance of any obligation under this Consent Decree …”
Gomez asked DOJ Attorney Miles Flint if both parties agreed to invoke the provision. Flint said yes.
WAPA Special Assistant Gregory Rhymer said the conversion was delayed by not two, but three natural disasters. A few days before the onslaught of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Virgin Islands, WAPA’s biggest generator, Unit 23, was caught in the ravages of Hurricane Harvey while undergoing repairs at a manufacturer’s service center in Houston.
Rhymer added that a major loss of revenue brought on by a total power outage left the utility without funds to pay for propane.
At the time Irma struck, five of WAPA’s generators on St. Thomas were working. After the storm there were two. Of the two, only one — Unit 15 — was propane converted.
As operations were slowly restored, performance tests were conducted on the two functioning units, and noncompliance matters were reported, Rhymer said.
“We shut the plant down to zero,” he said. “It took us a while to find out what was working and what was not working. Then we started bringing the plant back online slowly.”
Questions from the bench also raised compliance issues with WAPA’s Silver Arrow emergency generator on St. John.
Because the unit burns diesel made for use in vehicles, its particulate emissions are non-compliant, Gomez said, and always have been.
Rhymer told the court the St. John unit hasn’t worked for four to five years. WAPA is developing a new strategy to supply emergency power on the island, he said.
Rhymer also said the overhaul of Unit 23 has resumed in Texas.
An official from the Environmental Protection Agency also testified at Monday’s hearing. EPA Region 2 Environmental Engineer Ralph Lonergan said despite periods of non-compliance, emissions audits from Harley Plant are being seen more regularly.
“The trajectory is on course, in my mind,” he said. “The one instance where there was the most noncompliance was in the second quarter of 2017.”
At the time, Lonergan said, WAPA engineers were testing power capacity by ramping units up and down, but the EPA could not measure the injection of water into the units as part of the test.
“Not every single load had a water-to-fuel ratio tied to it,” he said.
Lonergan said September’s storms may push completion of some consent decree mandates back on the calendar, but he anticipates they’ll get done.
WAPA expects to resume propane deliveries within two to three months. Conversion of remaining generators was not forecast at the hearing, but Rhymer said that had the storms not occurred, Unit 18’s conversion was scheduled to follow Unit 15’s.
Unit 23’s conversion was expected to follow, he said, then the rest.
Both legal teams wrapped up the hearing by offering assurances.
“The authority hopes Your Honor is satisfied with the status of the consent decree,” said WAPA attorney Michelle Baker.
“We just want to make sure the consent decree covers the units that are going to be replaced,” Flint said.
“It is refreshing to have a consent decree where the trajectory of compliance is not flat, not in decline,” Gomez said. “I also appreciate the fact that the party that is subject to compliance notified the other party when there are changes in the compliance schedule. That is certainly a model I appreciate.”