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Advocates of Natural Sewage Treatment Still Fighting

April 5, 2005 – Kelly Gloger and Onaji Jackson of Sustainable Systems, along with members of Team St. Croix, believe a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment could save St. Croix residents millions of dollars in treatment plant construction and operation costs. Members of the V.I. Waste Management Authority and Sonya Nelthropp, director of the Authority, don't seem to be so sure.
After a three-hour meeting in a conference room at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport terminal Tuesday, the two groups did not seem to be any closer than they were on March 12, when many in Team St. Croix staged a demonstration at Anguilla Landfill calling for constructing wetlands. The demonstrators said the alternative plan would both save money and enable the recycling of water for farm use.(See "Protesters Call for Alternative Wastewater Treatment").
On Tuesday, Nelthropp said, "We have a contract (for a conventional wastewater treatment plant) and will follow that." She said the contractor, Veolia Water North America, has already spent $10 million dollars on the project.
Nelthropp said she encourages Team St. Croix and Sustainable Systems Development to go ahead and build a constructed wetland system, and "if it works," we might use it.
The answer angered some of those at the meeting.
Megan Shoenfelt, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, said, "I don't see the logic in going ahead and building the mechanical system." She pointed out that much of the motivation for building a system where sewage was cleaned naturally by a sand filter and plants was to save money.
At times it appeared that members from the two sides were not listening to what the other side was saying, and several times people interrupted other speakers. This prompted one board member to say that this was her last meeting if the meetings were to be conducted in such an "adversarial" atmosphere.
Nelthropp insisted that she could not consider the alternative project as a firm offer because, "We've gotten a lot of verbiage, but we have gotten no numbers."
Jackson said it was his understanding, from earlier meetings, that the authority wanted to hear from the experts and those experienced with the constructed wetlands systems.(See "Group Promotes Cleaning Sewage Naturally").
Nelthropp countered that she had been trying to get cost figures on the alternative proposal since November, but nothing concrete had materialized.
The Tuesday meeting began with a presentation by Ronald Lavigne, president of New England Waste Water Systems.
He discussed a system his company built in Ecuador.
After his presentation, the managers of systems in New York and Louisiana were put on a speaker phone and answered questions about how their systems work. The New York system was the more modern version, but the Louisiana system was more of the size needed in St. Croix.
Both managers said cost-effectiveness and efficiency convinced them to go with the more natural system. They also said that, although no system is "bullet proof," they thought their systems were less susceptible to failures caused by storms.
None of this seemed to convince Nelthropp. After the meeting, she said she had seen the presentation before, and the comments by the manager "only proved the systems work where they are, not that it would on St. Croix."
She said there was no great wetland area here like that in Louisiana where the treated water could be pumped.
Gloger responded, "There is 2,500 acres of farmland where it could be pumped."
She said the makeup of St. Croix soil with its clay could cause problems in the system, and she wanted more studies concerning it.
A lot of estimated figures were thrown about. The mechanical plant will cost over $22 million to build. Gloger said the reconstructed wetland system would coast $10 to $12 million.
The estimated operating costs for the mechanical plant was $800,000 for a year while Gloger said the wetland system would cost $400,000 a year.
Anne Golden, representing Sen. Lorraine Berry's office, said the cost of the conventional plant "would kill local residents financially." She pointed to rising energy costs and said "everything is going up on St. Croix but worker's wages."
Nelthropp said costs for excavating 18 acres, transporting in the sand needed (beach sand won't work) could make the proposed savings disappear.
Jackson said an engineering study was almost complete, and he could have concrete figures about the cost of the project on St. Croix as early as Wednesday.
While Nelthropp and others were questioning costs and which project could actually benefit farmers, Shoenfelt questioned exactly what the 147-page contract that the Authority had with Veolia said, and whether there was a way for the government to get out of it.
A general consensus was reached that the contract would be distributed to all interested parties and the cost figures once obtained by Jackson would be sent to Nelthropp and authority members.
The Authority will meet again April 13 to discuss the matter.
The system managers in New York and Lousiana both said local opposition was the first difficulty they had to overcome before getting the wetlands treatment systems online.
After the meeting, Lavigne said that governments going in the wrong direction have been stopped before.
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