In a searing bit of coincidence, this week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced two small grants aimed at helping the Virgin Islands cope with its waste management problems, while at the same time, yet another fire at the Bovoni landfill choked neighborhoods with smoke, rerouted traffic and closed the nearby Boschulte School for at least two days.
The fire was a potent reminder that both landfills in the territory have a long history of environmental problems, including frequent spontaneous blazes. And both are operating now under court-ordered scrutiny.
The most recent report to the court, filed in May of this year, hails the allocation of $146 million in hurricane disaster-related federal funds for the two landfills and says that for the first time, there may actually be enough money to fix most of the problems.
In contrast, the EPA grants are relatively small and are aimed at community awareness and education.
In a press release issued this week, the EPA said it has awarded the University of the Virgin Islands $100,000 to “utilize 21st-century skills to address the long-standing solid waste management issues in the U.S. Virgin Islands.” The money will be going to recruit at least 160 students and members of the community “to participate in sustainable materials management working groups” and another 30 for “intense training as creativity facilitators.”
The groups are supposed to work together “to identify novel solutions and think critically about how those solutions can be developed” and create a plan to present to the community.
An EPA spokesman said the award was part of a competitive grant for which UVI had applied.
He also provided information on another solid waste-related grant that the EPA intends to make to the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
The overview of that grant does not say how much funding is involved but says it is to encourage a reduction in waste through recycling and includes training employees and outfitting convenience centers with compactor bins or other recycling equipment. The grant will come “once all legal and administrative requirements are satisfied.”
Background and Forecast
It’s unclear exactly when residents and businesses started dumping waste at what would become the Bovoni landfill on St. Thomas and the Anguilla landfill on St. Croix. But government documents suggest it was sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s. The Public Works Department operated both for many years until the V.I. Waste Management Authority was created in 2004.
By that time, the EPA had already cited the territory for violating environmental standards. Then, in 2010, the federal government filed a complaint in federal court against WMA, the V.I. government, and the Port Authority to force compliance with the Clean Air Act and other federal mandates.
Growing out of that suit were two consent decrees, essentially a written agreement that the territory would make the necessary improvements. One, dated December 2012, covers the Bovoni landfill, and the other, signed in March 2013, covers the Anguilla landfill.
The Bovoni landfill is 34 acres and typically accepts about 117,000 tons of municipal solid waste and related scrap annually. Anguilla is 30 acres and takes in roughly 75,000 tons of waste and scrap each year, according to the report. Both were at or near capacity already at the time of the consent decrees.
Under the consent decrees, the territory was to impose user fees to support operations and also implement a long list of improvements, including the following:
- Operate gas collection and control systems at both sites, requiring rebuilding one at Bovoni and installing one at Anguilla
- Restore a contaminated wetland area near Bovoni
- Remove and dispose of scrap metal and tires
- Control scavenger birds at Anguilla to prevent them from interfering with flights at nearby Rohlsen Airport
- Assess groundwater beneath the Bovoni landfill for health risks and remedy if necessary
- Implement a recycling program
Perhaps most importantly, the territory was to phase out the landfills gradually, closing Anguilla by June 2020 and Bovoni by June 2021.
The May report to the court says it’s clear those deadlines were missed but adds, “Regardless, the GVI (Government of the Virgin Islands) and V.I. WMA need to develop new landfill capacity on St. Thomas as soon as possible, and need to develop new landfill capacity on St. Croix immediately.”
The Waste Management Authority has identified five to seven parcels of land comprising 60 acres “north of and adjacent to” the Bovoni landfill, which it plans to acquire, according to the report.
It has also identified some “limited available acreage” at Anguilla’s southeast corner and says if it is allowed to expand the landfill, it could be viable until 2032.
The report notes that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has historically opposed expansion at Anguilla because of safety concerns over scavenger birds.
Nevertheless, the report notes that there is a set-aside for that expansion as well as for “closure activities” for both landfills contained in the $146 million federal Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery/Mitigation funds that the V.I. Housing Finance Authority has allotted to waste management efforts.
“This represents the first time since the inception of the consent decrees there is sufficient available funding for the work contemplated in the consent decrees and bodes well for the future of waste disposal and management in the territory,” according to the report.
The report was filed jointly by the V.I. government, Waste Management, and the United States.