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Lack of Funding, Antiquated Facilities and Deficient Equipment Burden Waste Management, Director Says

Former VIWMA Executive Director Roger Merritt, who left his position Tuesday.
VIWMA Executive Director Roger Merritt (Source File Photo)

The V.I. Waste Management Authority has encountered numerous challenges in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria – which generated 825,000 cubic yards of debris, nearly three times as much waste as the territory typically generates in a year – Waste Management Authority Executive Director Roger Merritt Jr. said on Thursday.

“The storms of 2017 significantly devastated the territory and did not spare the V.I. Waste Management Authority’s infrastructure,” Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien said at Thursday’s Senate Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure Committee hearing. “The Waste Management Authority suffered damages to its wastewater treatment facilities, water and sewer lines, pump stations, landfills and operational facilities causing losses in excess of $40.9 million.”

To combat the impact the hurricanes had on bin sites, landfills and transfer stations, Merritt said the Waste Management Authority had to utilize available federal funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In total, the authority is juggling 72 projects, of which 56 have obligated funding. These projects will help firm up the authority’s infrastructure, clear debris and remove waste, but Merritt said even once the projects are finished Waste Management will still be laden with challenges.

“While the grants and other available funding sources we discussed will assist with improvements, we must take the necessary steps toward the goal of self-sufficiency by charging fees and creating additional revenue streams to become a truly autonomous agency,” Merritt said.

Waste Management must contend with an aging facility and wastewater infrastructure that is over 50 years old – a system that “has outlived its useful life,” Merritt said. The authority must also address the need for equipment and has severe budgetary setbacks.

Merritt relayed the most notable budgetary setbacks to senators as a deferment of $1 million from the St. John Tourism Fund that was reallocated to another agency; a stalled effort by the Public Services Commission, which lacked a quorum and could not review the authority’s application to implement tipping fees at the landfills; and a delay in receiving insurance proceeds owed to the authority from a 2019 fire at the St. Croix Transfer Station.

Sen. Janelle Sarauw, however, said perhaps it was less of a fiscal problem and more of a staffing problem.

“There was an increase in the budget appropriated to VIWMA,” she said. “Therefore, vacancies should be filled. Currently, VIWMA lacks an enforcement director, compliance officers and additional staff is required. We cannot want progress when we are not doing what’s necessary to achieve it.”

Sen. Kurt Vialet suggested perhaps funding would be available should President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan be passed.

“We are not even near with FEMA with the wastewater. I think we need to see whether or not this will qualify under the infrastructure plan and pull it out of the disaster recovery component … We need to clearly look at the Biden infrastructure act and see where and what the Virgin Islands can qualify for,” Vialet said.

Though nothing was voted upon at the hearing, Waste Management Authority representatives acknowledged the idea as a viable one that could potentially be worked on alongside FEMA fund-procuring efforts.

Sens. Vialet, Sarauw, Marvin Blyden, Genevieve Whitaker, Samuel Carrion, Franklin Johnson and Carla Joseph were present for the hearing. Additional non-committee members were also present.

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