As the Anguilla Landfill on St. Croix smoulders and the Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas sits atop a powder keg of methane gas, the Department of Public Works is preparing to put out requests for the design of a new, state-of-the-art solid waste facility.
Depending on the winning bid, however, there could be either one or two new facilities to handle the approximately 150,000 tons of garbage or more, depending on the estimates cited produced each year in the territory, according to Public Works draft request for proposals.
How much is 150,000 tons? Carnival Cruise Lines mega-ship Destiny tips the scales at 100,000 tons. Another way to better fathom the amount of waste generated in the territory can be gleaned from a 1993 study done by Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc. That report estimated the per capita solid waste generation rates for St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John at 8.6, 11.1, and 12.4 pounds per person per day respectively. That amount is twice that of people on the mainland.
To handle the constant flow of waste at what are in effect dumps and not federally approved landfills, Public Works RFP, set to be advertised at the end of February, seeks to identify a private contractor to build and operate a solid waste management facility on either St. Thomas or St. Croix or a facility on both islands. While Public Works Commissioner Harold Thompson Jr. didnt return several calls regarding this article, past estimates for a single waste management facility have been placed in the $100-million neighborhood.
"In general, it is envisioned that the solid waste management facility (SWMF) may consist of a material recycling facility (MRF), followed by a process to destroy solid waste, followed by landfilling of unusable/unprocessable materials and byproducts of the destruction process," states the draft RFP. "It is also envisioned that the waste destruction process could also produce marketable products such as energy and perhaps potable water."
According to the draft RFP, bidders will have the option of either building a facility on both St. Thomas and St. Croix on 10 acres adjacent to each islands existing landfills or building a single facility at either of the existing landfills. If a single facility is chosen, 20 acres will be made available on the designated island and 10 acres of land will be made available for siting an Island Transfer Station for collecting garbage in the district that does not have a facility.
Ownership of the land will remain with the government and a $1 per year lease will be provided the contractor to allow use of the land during the life of the contract providing all contractual conditions are met.
In return, the V.I. government would grant the winning bidder a long-term contract and the right to charge a tipping fee for disposal of solid waste brought to the new facility, a guarantee of a minimum quantity of solid waste to process and the right to market certain byproducts. In addition, the draft RFP states that the winning company will be eligible for Industrial Development Commission benefits.
TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN
Exactly what technology will be used to dispose of the islands garbage is not entirely clear at this point. Public Works Thompson has previously stated that the dearth of available land on each island makes a new landfill highly unlikely. He has also said although not directly — that incineration is not an option.
"Because of our present water collection methodology, via the utilization of cisterns, contaminating the roofs in our communities create other potential hazards," Thompson said at a recent Senate committee hearing focusing on the territorys landfills.
The draft RFP, however, also states that neither local law nor Public Works intends to stop a bidder from proposing other types of "thermochemical processes." That means other waste destruction methods that use heat to cause chemical reactions, including gasification, could be put into place.
Last year, Thompson visited jurisdictions that use gasification to destroy their waste, including Germany. While he isnt campaigning publicly for one process or another, Thompson has hinted that gasification is the governments preferred method for curing the territorys solid waste woes.
Like incineration, gasification uses heat to destroy garbage. Incineration burns the organic material in solid waste by introducing air during the process, producing high-temperature gases that must be cooled and cleaned before being released through a smokestack. The byproduct of the process, ash, which consists of metals and silica, must be disposed of in a landfill.
Gasification, meanwhile, operates at temperatures almost twice as high as incineration. Because of the high temperatures, all organic compounds are destroyed. Gases produced in the process are then quickly cooled to prevent compounds such as dioxins from reforming.
The high temperatures are also above the melting point of metal and mineral products found in solid waste. The metal byproduct is processed into pellets that can be used in a smelter.
RECYCLE, REUSE, REWHAT?
Last year, the St. Croix Environmental Association completed its Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan. SEAs plan places a high priority on recycling, reuse, waste reduction and composting. Through its work, SEA found that more than 50 percent of what is going into the territorys landfills is compostable material.
A gasification method, however, has the ability to handle unsorted municipal solid waste, industrial waste, tires, medical waste, appliances and construction debris basically anything and everything. And while that may sound like a panacea to some, it poses a problem for others.
Yvonne Petersen, director of SEA, said that while methods like gasification have become more environmentally sound over the years, the message sent to the community is that it doesnt need to reduce the amount of waste it produces.
"Source reduction is an important part of an integrated waste management plan," Petersen said, adding that the draft RFP only gives cursory attention to recycling. "The language is not really very strong. Theres no discussion about educating the community on recycling.
"We have a long way to go to educate. Were talking about gasification but there is no educational component to it."
To the extent feasible, the draft RFP states, Public Works preference is to promote recycling and or reuse of solid waste.
"Thus, although not an absolute requirement, it is strongly preferred by the government that the contractor include a Materials Recycling facility (MRF) in the contractors SWMF and marketing of the materials recovered."
To promote recycling in the territory, Public Works states that it wants to establish recycling bins at its solid waste transfer stations "for those materials the contractor deems recyclable or reusable."
"Recycling or reuse by composting does not appear to be feasible at the sites provided by the government on either island because of the proximity of residential neighborhoods, limited land area, or the potential to attract birds which could jeopardize airport operations (St. Croix)," the draft RFP states. "However, it may be possible to work with (local) groups . . . to implement smaller, dispersed composting operations."
But SEAs Petersen said Public Works needs to make the recycling provisions in the RFP an absolute requirement, not just an aside.
"Based on past history with the government, we feel that if recycling is not part of the initial program, its not going to happen," Petersen said. "We need to get the dump fire under control, but we need to do it outside the crisis mode with long-range thinking."
STOKING THE FIRE
Paying for a system that could cost approximately $100 million means the
territory would have to start doing what every other jurisdiction in the United States does: charge people and companies tipping fees when disposing of garbage. Various studies commissioned by the government have placed the cost at $40 to $50 a ton.
The company building and operating a new facility would keep the revenue to cover costs associated with debt repayment or for operating, managing and maintaining the facilities.
"Tipping fees have never been charged for landfilling solid waste in the territory nor have residential customers been charged directly for government pickup and disposal of their solid waste," the draft RFP states. "It is thus difficult to predict what effect the advent of solid waste disposal fees would have on the amount of solid waste requiring future disposal."
And that could be key in the long-term operation of a facility. To fund a gasification unit, a large amount of garbage must be run through to make it economically feasible. Because of that, Public Works has guaranteed a future contractor a certain tonnage of trash per year. That opens the door for trash to be imported not only from within the territory, but from outside as well.
Public Works is only interested in proposals with technologies and facilities that can not only process, at minimum, 75,000 tons of solid waste per year, but also up to 150,000 tons, according to the draft RFP.
"There is one exception to this 75,000 tons per year lower end requirement. Since 75,000 tons per year of solid waste may be beneath the economic threshold of some technologies, the government may allow the contractor to bring into the territory additional solid waste providing it is not violating any regulation in doing so, it is demonstrated to be beneficial to the territory to do so, and it is approved in writing at least six months in advance of any actual physical transfer."
SAME OLD SONG?
Meanwhile, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, chairman of the Committee on Environmental Protection, on Friday petitioned Gov. Charles Turnbull to declare a state of emergency concerning the solid waste situation in the territory. Donastorg, however, said such a declaration may have been put in place by the previous administration following Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 and never rescinded.
Whatever the case, the situation at the governments landfills are not new. Dozens of methane-fueled fires have ignited at the Bovoni Landfill over the last 20 years. And, as with the latest effort by Public Works to construct a new facility, there have been almost the same amount of studies done concerning landfill and solid waste management all for not.
"I think the situation . . . has become dangerous," Donastorg said, regarding the latest fires at the St. Croix landfill and the subsequent back-up of trash around the island. "I dont see any significant effort to solve this problem."
Commissioner Thompson, however, recently told Donastorgs committee that Public Works efforts were for real this time.
"We cant afford to mess up this time because the landfills of the Virgin Islands have a lifespan alarm clock ticking, which will sound off in a little over four years," Thompson said, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration has ordered that the St. Croix landfill be closed by the end of 2002.
A completed RFP is scheduled to go out to bid next week, with a notice to proceed at the end of August. Construction permitting and start-up of the St. Croix facility is estimated to take two-and-a-half years with St. Thomas following six months later, according to Thompson.
"Based on need, the St. Croix plant will be built first and I dont think that there would be much dispute on that subject," he said. "Overall, we are moving in the areas of disposal in a timely manner from a financial and practical point of view."