It would be hard to find someone with more experience of Virgin Islands Planning and Natural Resources than Gov. Albert Bryan’s choice to head that department, and he didn’t have to look very far.
Like some talented understudy in an old movie, Jean-Pierre (JP) Oriol, 41, has been right there in the wings, learning all the parts.
That’s not to suggest he has been overlooked; in nearly two decades with the department he has steadily climbed the ladder from a field worker to director of the department’s predominant Coastal Zone Management division, and has served several times as acting commissioner. There’s been a lot to learn in all that time. DPNR is one of the more diverse departments of the government.
Its mandate, as it appears on its website, is “to protect, maintain and manage the natural and cultural resources of the Virgin Islands, through the coordination of economic development, in collaboration with local, federal and non-government organizations, enabling present and future Virgin Island generations to live safer, fuller lives in harmony with their environment and cultural heritage.”
It’s a wide umbrella and it covers everything from issuing general commercial and residential building permits and permits for development in the territory’s coastal areas, to monitoring air and water quality, pesticide use, and underground fuel storage tanks. The department’s environmental enforcement duties include federal fisheries laws, boating safety regulations, assistance with local and federal law enforcement in combatting illegal drugs, and Homeland Security duties aimed at preventing terrorist attacks aimed at hurting the economy.
Oriol’s time with CZM has meant that he has experience in virtually all aspects of DPNR’s primary focus, protecting and preserving the environment.
He has less direct experience with department divisions more removed from environmental concerns – such as the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums, the V.I. State Historic Preservation office and the V.I. Council on the Arts. But, he said in an interview with the Source last week, he is more than a little familiar with those operations.
“I know what their mandate is. I know what their struggles are,” he said. Historically, the various divisions within the department cooperate with one another.
“We try and help each other as much as possible,” he said.
As an example, when Libraries, Archives and Museums was looking for money for displays at the territory’s newly renovated fort museums, Oriol introduced division staff to a federal funding source he was familiar with, the Technical Assistance Program, an annual grant that doesn’t require a local match.
“I was just lending a hand,” he said. The division had the lead on the entire project.
Federal interface is an important element for DPNR. In many ways, the department serves as the local arm of the federal Environmental Protection Agency administering EPA programs and regulations. Moreover, it is funded more by federal grants than by the local treasury.
DPNR’s draft 2020 budget proposal is approximately $65 million, Oriol said. Of that, just $9.5 million is proposed to come from the V.I. General Fund. About $6 to $7 million will be from special funds, such as fees and fines, and the rest – something in the neighborhood of $49 million or roughly 75 percent of the total – would be federal funding.
A generation ago, the public counted on CZM/DPNR to check what some thought was a trend toward over-development. For Oriol, it’s always been about balance, encouraging economic growth without sacrificing the environment.
“Our statutes are pretty development friendly,” he said. “There are very few projects that the department has said ‘No’ to in my 19, going on 20, years’ time here.”
Instead, it has guided developers to consider ecological consequences and to mitigate negative impacts.
“Maybe you put in bigger cisterns, maybe you put in more landscaping … There are plenty of models that will help you,” he said.
Following federal guidelines, the department soon will require developers to factor in climate change predictions when they apply for CZM permits. Oriol is determined that the new requirement won’t be a deterrent.
For one thing, he said, developers already consider many of the factors that are expected to be affected by climate change, such as drought and flooding. The only added element is sea level rise. For another, it only makes sense to be sure a project will last longer than the payback period on the loan to fund it, so it’s in everyone’s interest to avoid areas where storm surge or erosion is expected in a few decades.
It’s not clear exactly when the climate change considerations will be required. First, DPNR has to complete its work to update its Environmental Assessment forms.
“In December we finished the revisions to the EA, and sent it to a third party reviewer,” Oriol said.
DPNR’s regulatory authority extends to both private sector interests and to government projects, making it a key player in just about everything happening in the territory.
On St. Thomas, that includes the major road expansion project along downtown’s Waterfront/Veterans Drive which requires significant dredging in the harbor.
Oriol said the consultant on the job is obligated to supply DPNR with two reports each month: one is an assessment of the water quality and the other is a status report on the health of sea grass that was removed from the construction area to the “back side” of Hassel and Water Islands to protect it.
“Our role for that project is ensuring there’s no impacts escaping the containment area” and smothering any marine life. Early on, there was an issue, he said, but it was corrected.
Oriol doesn’t seem uncomfortable monitoring public projects as closely as private ones.
“Politics doesn’t really work its way into the review,” he said, adding he just relies on the law, and the V.I. statues “provide an incredible amount of guidance … I think the role that DPNR plays is pretty clear cut as to what the Codes say.”
Oriol calls himself “100 percent Virgin Islander.” Both of his parents are originally from Haiti; they were living in New York when he was born in March 1977, but moved to St. Thomas when he was five months old.
Except for his time in college, he’s been in the territory ever since.
It was a bit of serendipity that lead him to his career path.
“It’s actually a funny story,” he said.
He had completed his bachelor’s degree in biology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and came home, intending to stay a year, helping in his father’s business, and then go on to graduate school for a degree in health care management.
Then one day he ran into his 10th grade biology teacher, Janice Hodge. She had left All Saints School and was the CZM director. She asked Oriol if he snorkeled and when he said he did, she said “I’ve got a job for you.” He demurred at first; his degree was biology in general, not marine biology. “But you snorkel” was her response. Eventually, she convinced him to apply for a field position with DPNR.
“My first few months on the job, I was in the water all the time,” Oriol said. He was helping verify maps of submerged lands. He put in stints with Fish and Wildlife, with the earth change division, and with other programs. He enjoyed the interaction with other staff and he really liked working outdoors.
“And I was getting health insurance, so I was like: ‘This is perfect,’ ” he said.
On a more serious note, he said he also found himself drawn to environmental work and research. It was a new field opening up to him.
“I thought, ‘I wished I had known about this’” earlier. “I just kind of grew into it.”
He did get back to graduate school, earning 30 of the 33 credits he needed for a masters in marine and environmental sciences at the University of the Virgin Islands, but missing the deadline for completing his thesis.
“UVI was really accommodating,” he said. But he was trying to do too much at one time. “My job here at DPNR just got bigger and bigger” and meantime he and his wife Shannon were starting a family. They have two sons.
Oriol said he regrets not taking a leave of absence to finish his degree, but he’s glad for all he learned at UVI and for the networking he did there. DPNR frequently partners with the university on projects; it has created a few internships for UVI students and it has funded at least one research project at the institution.
Now it seems the department has also grown its own manager.