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Noxious WAPA Emissions Subject of Senate Committee Hearing

June 17, 2009 — Complaints from neighbors of excessive smoke and fumes emanating from the V.I. Water and Power Authority power plant in Estate Richmond on St. Croix prompted a Senate oversight hearing Wednesday, with inconclusive results.
At the opening of the evening hearing of the Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection in Frederiksted's Fritz E. Lawaetz conference room, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said his office had received numerous complaints of smoke, odors, oily residue and particles on cars and windows in the area of the plant. Two letters from residents of Long Reef Condominiums were read into the record by Rochelle Corneiro-Todman, a clerk of the Legislature.
"Over the five years that I have lived at this address, I have experienced what is best described as 'waves' of disagreeable and unpleasing odors coming from the station," wrote Jean J. Picou of Long Reef. "Most recently, from December to February, the waves were at their strongest in my opinion, and made it very difficult to live at Long Reef."
Susan Greenhalgh echoed Picou's complaints and agreed that December to February was worse than usual.
"The odor resembled a dirty oven being cleaned with oven cleaner," Greenhalgh wrote. "On Dec. 22 and 23 … I was particularly alarmed by the strong noxious odor that was emitting from the plant. This was much stronger than the usual odors. … I was driven from my home, unable to breathe the fumes."
Paul Chakroff, director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, testified to the health and environmental damage caused by soot and nitrous oxide. He showed photos of thick, black smoke coming from WAPA chimneys and said the Department of Planning and Natural Resources had found WAPA to be out of compliance with the terms of its Clean Air Act Title V permit.
"A review of the most recent full compliance report found WAPA not 'current in compliance' with Title V conditions," Chakroff said.
DPNR Commissioner Robert Mathes was invited to testify, but sent a letter saying he would be unable to make it.
WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. defended the utility, saying it wa in compliance with standards, but conceded there have been a number of instances when the utility has vented black smoke in recent months.
"There is a common misunderstanding that occasional observation of visible emissions at our facilities is indicative of noncompliance with standards," Hodge said. "There are various occasions at the plant when residents might observe black smoke from the stacks for short periods of time."
For example, twice a day WAPA blasts out the inside of some of its boilers with high-pressure steam to blow out carbon that builds up on the interior walls, he said. If it isn't done, the soot slows the transfer of heat and makes it less and less efficient.
"These activities are for only short periods of time and are authorized under our permits," he said. "It may also occur in the normal course of our operations and in full compliance with our emissions limitations."
The plant has had trouble with a turbine control system so that "whenever the turbine trips offline when under load, the boiler will emit an excessive amount of smoke until the controls compensate," he said. This was a severe problem in December on the days Picou highlighted, he said. Two boilers, nos. 10 and 11, are the culprits, in part because they use number six diesel fuel.
The problem has been partly corrected, and when St. Croix's new heat-recovery steam generator goes online in August or September, WAPA will be able to take one of the two offending boilers offline, he said. The two units in question are, ironically, the most fuel-efficient.
"The funny thing about this is that when units 10 and 11 are in operation is when we are running the most efficiently and saving the consumer the most money," Hodge said.
Since the longterm solution is to move away from oil-fired generation altogether and money is limited, WAPA has to carefully weigh every major upgrade or change to the existing generators, he said.
"To put in a multi-million dollar scrubber and not plan to use it for many years is not a good use of customer dollars," he said. "We have some $37 million in capital projects from all different departments. We have to choose our projects wisely, as cash is king."
Problems aside, WAPA's federal and V.I. environmental permits allow for up to three minutes of emissions that block 40 percent of the light during any 30-minute period, Hodge said.
Chakroff disputed the assertion that emissions were within established standards, saying he believed the smoke photographed coming from the plant's chimneys was "close to 100 percent opaque."
At the close of the hearing, Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the committee's chairman, asked the Health Department's Division of Environmental Health and DPNR's Environmental Protection Division to conduct some air-quality testing, and he asked Hodge if WAPA could try to minimize emissions by controlling when the turbines switch on and off.
The committee also took a revote on Marriott Ownership Resort's major Coastal Zone Management permit to allow for the reconstruction of a hurricane-damaged dock, the construction of a concrete ramp and seawall and the installation of a floating dock and three swim platforms at the Frenchman's Cove Development on St. Thomas. (See "CZM Committee OKs Marriott, Gas Station Plans.") The original vote was called into legal question because a senator left during the vote, causing the final tally to indicate a lack of a quorum.
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