Fueled by the public’s concerns over the dangers of using pet coke as a fuel source for proposed waste-to-energy facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix, senators decided Monday to hold off on approving two leases for land needed to build the plant on St. Thomas until they can do more research on the project.
In August, Government House announced that both the V.I. Water and Power Authority and the Waste Management Authority had entered into agreements with Alpine Energy Group for waste-to-energy facilities that on St. Thomas and St. Croix would, according to officials, allow WAPA to bring down its costs and lower its dependency on fossil fuel, while giving WMA the ability to burn municipal trash and close the territory’s two landfills.
The Public Services Commission approved power purchase and interconnection agreements between WAPA and Alpine in October. Under the power purchase agreements, WAPA has committed to buying power from Alpine at fixed rates set for the next 20 years. At the hearing, Alpine said the $440 million project would also require Senate approval on lease agreements with the government for property near the Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas, along with various permit approvals from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the territory’s Planning and Natural Resources Department.
Leases for the land needed for the St. Croix facility is currently being considered by the V.I. Port Authority and does not require Senate approval.
Meanwhile, the property leases for land on St. Thomas — both for parcels in Estate Bovoni that would either house an electrical power plant or waste-processing facility — were approved early last month by the Senate’s Planning and Environmental Protection Committee. At the time, several senators said the project essentially kills two birds with one stone by providing a solution that would help the territory deal with its waste issues and its dependency on oil.
But many were whistling a different tune when the leases came up for approval Monday by the full Senate.
"We have to be careful — we don’t want to send the wrong message here," said Sen. Craig W. Barshinger, who originally voted in favor of the leases in committee. "Pet coke is dangerous."
Barshinger said that the community’s concerns — brought to the forefront in a recent petition to the PSC to reconsider the government’s deal with Alpine — have made him give the project a second look. He suggested that after the trash is processed by the waste-to-energy facilities, it could be shipped over to Puerto Rico and burnt, and electricity could be sent back over to WAPA via underground cable.
Others, such as Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, staunchly opposed the project. Holding up an article on waste-to-energy plants recently published in a Puerto Rican newspaper, Rivera-O’Reilly said she was concerned about the "repercussions" the project would have on the community’s health.
"I will go down swinging," she said. "If I have to chain myself to the pet coke plant or waste-to-energy plant, I will."
Others said that by voting for the leases, they would be showing their "intent" to support the project, which they could not do before the actual agreements between WAPA, WMA and Alpine came before the Legislature. When it was pointed out the documents have already been signed and do not require final approval from the Senate, many said they would need to do some more research before they could give a solid yes or no.
There was talk of visiting another pet coke plant in the region and organizing another forum in which WAPA, WMA, Alpine and local residents can talk over their concerns about the project.
Voting to hold the leases were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Rivera-O’Reilly, Sammuel Sanes, Michael Thurland, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams.
Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Usie R. Richards voting against holding the leases, saying they were ready to cast their final vote.
Meanwhile, Barshinger — who said he would abstain from voting — was absent at roll call.
All senators were present during Monday’s session.