85 F
Cruz Bay
Tuesday, September 27, 2022


I agree that it is not AT&T's (or any other corporate entity's)responsibility to bail us out of our economic fiascos. The 1997 law that turns over half of all fines and penalties collected for pollution and CZM violations to the Union Arbitration Fund is outrageous, it is embarrassing, and it will cast a cloud over every pollution penalty decision from now on until the law is repealed.
The validity of the AT&T penalty decision was further pushed under a cloud of suspicion by the eagerness with which the "Daily News" urged the full penalty. I believe the Daily New's reaction stems, not because of any great love of the environment or of government workers' struggles to obtain their retroactive wages, but more likely because of the linkage of
the paper and the former Governor to AT&T's strongest competitor.
Nevertheless, AT&T's actions (and inactions) during the laying of the cable was reprehensible, and although the fine may well be excessive, the two-thirds reduction is, to me, highly questionable.
DPNR found 2,494 separate violations arising from AT&T's development of its fiber optic cable facility at Butler Bay, St. Croix. These violations are documented in Action No. CZX-75-1996: "Notice of Violation; Order for Remedial Action; Notice of Assessment of Civil Penalty; and Notice of Opportunity for Hearing" by the St. Croix Committee of CZM, issued
December 30, 1998.
The specific charges include the following violations of AT&T's permit: 1) knowingly releasing or allowing the release of drill mud into the marine environment; using a method of drilling (reaming and back-reaming) different from that agreed upon and guaranteed to cause significant discharges from drilled holes; failing to stop the drilling when spills occurred; failing to clean it up (in fact, covering much of it with sand); failing to have a vacuum device on site at all times.
Furthermore, CZM charged that AT&T intentionally added petroleum products to the drilling fluid (when only drilling clay and sea water were approved); placed 15 drill pipes, PE pipes and drill stem on the sea floor, the deep reef, and the artificial reef without a permit; and discharged pollutants into the waters of the Virgin Islands.
In addition, the Notice of Violation continues, the cable was placed outside of the permitted easement on territorial submerged lands; waste oil generated by the project was not properly disposed of; and catchment basins were not provided for the above ground petroleum piping and storage tanks located in the open.
Drilling commenced April 12, 1996. There was daily reporting to AT&TVI as well as to stateside company officials from the AT&T's own on-site monitor, but these reports were not conveyed to DPNR. It took concerned citizens' inspection of the site in October of 1996, followed by several inspections by DPNR's Divisions of Environmental Protection and Fish and Wildlife divers to discover the enormity of the spill. By that time, the mud emergence from two failed holes had spread over 5,227 square meters, covering approximately 72% of the benthic community, and smothering not just 100 milk conch but corals and sponges and everything else in its path.
The litany of specific violations is horrifying enough, but there is also evidence of other deliberate disregard of permit conditions, especially in the failure to report drilling fluid discharges to DPNR. AT&T did not perform promised cleanup operations. There were in-house suggestions of ways to cover up the spill areas with sand, and the dumping of pipes, etc.
on the reef.
AT&T continued to argue against cleaning up all the mud spill even after the first Notice of Violation and hearing of November 1996, and even after the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corp of Engineers agreed in March 1997 that buried drilling material should be removed.
At the time of the issuance of the Final Notice of Violation of December 30, 1998, AT&T was still denying that there was drill mud remaining in deep pockets within the entire spill area and that additional mud deposits discovered beyond the deep reef were their responsibility.
Up to that time, AT&T had turned over to DPNR documents of only the main contractor, A&L Underground. AT&T even informed DPNR that it had not "authorized" its sixteen other contractors to provide documents formally requested by the Department in September 1998.
All of this indicates to me that AT&T did everything in its power to keep its violations from being known by DPNR, in clear disregard for the conditions of the permit which they, themselves had signed. Hence my personal conviction that settling for $8 million might have been too hasty and too lenient.
Unfortunately, we may never know who is correct. I regret that the final negotiators of the Turnbull administration apparently did not seek outside advice and information about the amount of penalties imposed on polluters in other U. S. jurisdictions from an acknowledged environmental litigation expert.
Without that information, and as long as the law providing half of the amount of pollution fines and penalties to the Union Arbitration Fund stands, how can we expect punishments for environmental crimes that are fair to both sides?
Helen W. Gjessing

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