An underground fire in the Bovoni Landfill destroyed its new multi-million dollar methane collection system and the V.I. Waste Management Authority needs millions of dollars to replace it and to complete closing the landfills, WMA Chief Operating Officer Steve Aubain told senators Friday.
Budget cuts and the Legislature’s decision to reject the previous administration’s bond proposal after contracts were signed forced WMA to cut costs at the landfill, leading to problems that led to the fire, Aubain and WMA Chief Engineer Jim Grum told the committee.
WMA and Public Works officials were updating the Senate Committee on Housing, Public Works and Waste Management on the progress and problems each agency was looking at. Both agencies said this year’s emergency budget allocation cuts, forced by a $133 million budget shortfall, are severely affecting their ability to meet their mandates and obligations.
WMA is under two court orders to close the Bovoni and Anguilla landfills on St. Thomas and St. Croix, respectively. Aubain said the WMA developed a closure plan and as of 2014, the costs were projected at about $75.4 million over a 5-year period for both landfills.
Former Gov. John deJongh Jr. proposed a $100 million bond issuance last year to fill a budget gap, help the territory’s hospitals and pay $23 million of the landfill closing costs. The Legislature rejected the request last June, replacing it with legislation authorizing the government to instead get a higher interest bank loan that would have to be paid off the same year (See Related Links below).
The Legislature’s substitute included no funding for the landfill closings.
Not having the money to complete projects within the court approved landfill closing timeline has "had a devastating impact on daily landfill operations, particularly at the Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas," Aubain said.
Some "key projects,” including a berm on the west end of Bovoni and a retaining wall on the eastern part of the landfill, were required to make space for incoming waste over the next five or six years, but could not happen without funding, he said.
WMA and its contractor A9 Enterprises, "have been forced to place new waste in areas that were previously filled to capacity," Aubain said. This wastes money, is dangerous and WMA will eventually have to pay to move the material to new locations, he said. It also led to the fire, he said, adding, "forced placement of waste on the eastern slopes last year due to the lack of space resulted in the kindling of an underground landfill fire that has damaged and rendered the gas collection system inoperable until it is extinguished."
WMA also is facing fines and penalties for not meeting the court’s timeline, he said.
Putting out the fire and replacing the ruined equipment is projected to cost about $9.2 million, he said.
Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly said she would not support "any bonds for the Waste Management Authority … until the Waste Management Authority has shown it is a good steward of taxpayer dollars," and that she does not consider WMA to be operating properly "after six years of hearing the same excuses." O’Reilly opposed the bond measure at the time.
Both Public Works and the WMA are being severely affected by budget cuts, preventing and delaying road repairs and capital projects for Public Works and putting the WMA in violation of court orders to close its landfills.
Public Works Commissioner Gustav James updated senators on the status of an array of road, drainage and construction projects throughout the territory. Budget cuts are hurting the department, but most projects are continuing ahead, he said.
At the start of the fiscal year, Public Works had $19.3 million in local funding in its budget, but on March 1, its allocation was cut by $1.5 million, or 8 percent of the total, he said. It was applied over only the last seven months of the year, amounting to a 13.7 percent cut for the rest of the year, he said.
"The limited funding continues to be of concern for the department as we seek to do more to maintain and improve our territory’s infrastructure," he said.
Federal highway funding, which does not cover maintenance and upkeep, is at $16 million under the current federal highway bill, compared to $20 million annually in years past, he said.
No votes were taken at the information gathering oversight hearing.