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Tuesday, February 7, 2023


Sept. 6, 2001 – The floating desalination plant that sat unused for three years after it was donated to the territory by the U.S. Navy and then was leased to a British Virgin Islands company earlier this year was unceremoniously towed back into local waters a week ago.
The vessel is moored in St. Thomas's Krum Bay while plans are being laid to put it into use locally, according to officials of the Property and Procurement Department, which has taken over jurisdiction for its use from the Public Works Department.
Alan Grieg, assistant Property and Procurement commissioner, said that Joseph Ponteen, an assistant attorney general assigned to work at the department on St. Croix and who heads the Property Division for the district, "was most instrumental" in getting the barge returned to USVI waters.
Ponteen assisted Elston George, Property and Procurement deputy commissioner, in having the barge "brought back safely to our waters," Grieg said. He added that "to my knowledge" there have been no changes to the previously reported plans of Property and Procurement Commissioner Mark Biggs to put the plant into use locally.
Ponteen said Wednesday, that "we [Property and Procurement] now have control of the barge. They [Public Works] have turned it back over to us."
The barge was leased by Public Works in March to the Jost Van Dyke Water Co., owned by David Blyden, brother-in-law of Attorney General Iver Stridiron. Blyden leased the plant in order to produce water for sale on the island of Jost Van Dyke. The leasing prompted heated debate in the Senate Rules Committee on April 4, when the panel was considering the nomination of Wayne Callwood, then acting Public Works commissioner, to become commissioner. Callwood terminated the contract with Blyden the day after that hearing.
Now, Ponteen said, Biggs has "set a committee in place to develop a comprehensive plan looking at potential needs within and without the Virgin Islands and then to determine what is the best plan for using this valuable resource." Ponteen said that he and the committee chair, George, currently are the only members. "That's the nucleus," he said. "We will be adding. We will have to get Public Works and Agriculture and broaden the committee … We have not fully decided as yet" who all the committee members will be.
According to Ponteen, the committee has established its goal. "We had our initial meeting" on Tuesday, he said. "I can safely say that by the end of this month, we will have a plan in place."
Ponteen said the committee needs to determine whether the plant "can satisfy St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, Water Island? Could we also be generous to our neighbors, if there's a need for water in the B.V.I. on Jost Van Dyke?"
Noting that the plant's two reverse-osmosis systems have the capacity to produce 300,000 gallons of fresh water per day, he said this raises the question of whether there is "sufficient storage capacity" ashore for the water produced. He noted that the Water and Power Authority's 250,000-gallon storage tank at Frank Bay, St. John, could be filled with a single day's output.
Ponteen said the committee will look into how economically feasible it would be to tow the barge to available water-storage facilities on various islands as needed. "Theoretically, you could actually have the barge doing something on St. Croix, something on St. Thomas, something on St. John — maybe Jost Van Dyke and Water Island," he said, adding that the plant "can produce electricity as well."
Two and a half years ago, Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Bingley Richardson, then Public Works marine services director, said getting the barge to St. John and into operation there should be a government priority to alleviate the island's severe, chronic shortage of potable water.
In 1999, Richardson said that when the Navy turned the barge over to the territory, engineers placed its value at $4 million. He said the plant, built in 1994, was in excellent condition in Virginia, where he checked it out, but was damaged in rough seas en route to St. Thomas. According to Richardson, a onetime ferry boat captain, $200,000 worth of replacement parts came with the desal plant, and all that was needed to get it operational was repair of "superficial damage" and training of personnel to operate it.
The V.I. government had never gotten the plant working, and the barge, anchored for some time off Hassel Island, had been vandalized in the meantime.
Now, the committee created by Biggs also must deal with the outstanding bills submitted by Blyden for expenditures to get the desal plant working. According to Ponteen, "We're looking at invoices for about $74,000." In August, while the barge was still in the B.V.I., Biggs said Public Works was "attempting to secure the funds" to pay the water company.

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