How well workers at the Waste Management Authority have done with taking over operations of two wastewater treatment plants came under the scrutiny of a federal judge on Friday. The building of two new plants and the hiring of a contractor to run them for 20 years was part of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Two evidentiary hearings for the Waste Management Authority took place the week that Hurricane Dorian reached St. Thomas. The solid waste compliance hearing took place as scheduled on Tuesday. The second hearing on wastewater was postponed from Wednesday to Friday.
By then, the rains brought on by what was then a Category 1 hurricane may have hampered operations at the treatment plants and pump stations operated by Waste Management. But Waste Management attorney Robert Goldsmith III did not bring any witnesses to tell the court how the storm impacted the system.
District Court Judge Curtis Gomez chastised Goldsmith, saying the storm did not prevent officials from the Virgin Islands Police Department from bringing their witnesses in for a similar hearing on Thursday. Gomez also said the attorney for the Justice Department extended his hotel stay to accommodate a change in schedule.
Justice Department attorney Donald Frankel brought the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental engineer Pedro Modesto to testify.
Modesto described his recent inspections of five sewage pump stations and a number of capital projects designed to increase efficiency in the system. One of the capital projects, an offshore sewage interceptor line on St. Croix, was of particular concern because grant funding was set to expire at the end of August.
There was also testimony about two EPA notices of violation issued to Waste Management for the Harold Thompson Plant at Anguilla and the Red Point treatment plant on St. Thomas. A notice of violation was issued for the Anguilla plant July 2. Red Point received its second violation notice on the same day.
Problems cited in the equalization tank at Anguilla were part of Modesto’s testimony. He said the problems are preventing proper processing of raw sewage entering the tank. The end product of proper sewage treatment is called effluent. Once treatment is completed, effluent can be discharged without causing environmental harm.
Effluent violations were cited at the Red Point plant. Because it is a second notice, Modesto said Waste Management was ordered to pay a $300,000 fine and to submit a corrective action plan. The order is expected to be subject to discussions between Waste Management and Planning and Natural Resources Division of Environmental Enforcement within the next two weeks, Modesto said.
The two plants were built and operated by contractors from VEOLIA Water North America Caribbean until recently. The company was supposed to operate the two plants for 20 years as part of the settlement deal between the V.I. government and Justice. But mounting financial pressures creating a $10 million debt by the government led VEOLIA to turn operations over to Waste Management in June.
Frankel told the court that Waste Management was managing plant operations well after the initial handover. He also credited the agency for improving operations after an initial downturn in performance in May.
“So the EPA was surprised to see problems. We’re hopeful that VIWMA will meet its obligations,” Frankel said.