Aug. 5, 2003 – The Federal Aviation Administration appears finally to be making made good on threats to cut the Port Authority's federal funding over problems at the Anguilla landfill — and VIPA could be forced to pay back millions of dollars already received as well as lose future grants for both the St. Croix and St. Thomas airports.
In a July 18 letter to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, FAA manager W. Dean Stringer was critical of the Public Works Department for its failure to establish an interim bale-and-wrap facility for the nearly 120 tons of garbage brought into the landfill daily.
Since 1996, the FAA has urged VIPA, which owns the land on which Anguilla sits, to close down the facility because of the dangers to aircraft posed by scavenging birds and dogs and smoke from burning debris. In 1998, it set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2002, for doing so. The deadline came and went.
According to federal law, landfills may not be located within 10,000 feet of an airport.
Stringer pointed out in his letter that a schedule reached by Public Works and agreed to by the FAA would have the bale-and-wrap facility operational at the Anguilla site by this November. He said that Landfill Technologies, the Puerto Rico company hired to build and run the facility, has yet to receive a contract so that work can begin. That contract, according to the schedule, was to have been issued by last January.
The government awarded the job to Landfill Technologies in June of last year. (See :Callwood: FAA satisfied with landfill progress".) In more than a year, the company and the government have not been able to reach agreement on a contract.
"The Public Works Department has failed to perform their responsibilities regarding this issue," Stringer wrote. He also said the Port Authority has requested a "significant amount" of federal money for work at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport.
"Unfortunately, until meaningful progress is made in this matter, the FAA will withhold consideration of any discretionary funding," Stringer wrote. "If the current lack of progress continues, the FAA will have no choice but to issue formal compliance action."
He said if VIPA is found to be in noncompliance, the authority could be forced to forgo all future federal funding and might have to pay back funds already issued. The letter did not say specifically how much grant money this would entail. However, a $9.3 million grant from the FAA for airport improvements and expansion hinged on the dump's closure.
Gordon Finch, who retired as VIPA executive director at the end of 2002, had earlier last year cited a demand for repayment of that grant as a possible sanction for failing to comply with the order. Further, he said then, the FAA could even decertify the airport, rendering it practically unusable to most airlines.
On Monday, Finch, reached at his St. Croix home, declined to comment.
"VIPA is ultimately responsible to the federal government for the closure but needs your intervention to get the Public Works Department to perform," Stringer told the governor.
Senators told of situation
On Monday, Darlan Brin, Port Authority executive director, cited Stringer's letter to the governor in presenting an overview of VIPA's finances to the Senate Finance Committee as part of the panel's Fiscal Year 2004 budget hearings.
"The Port Authority might be put in a position sometime in the near future where we will not be able to receive grants from the FAA," Brin said, noting that the FAA has written numerous times to the administration about closing the Anguilla. Brin told the senators that the most recent letter warned that if Public Works failed to maintain the agreed-upon timetable for closing the landfill, the FAA would halt all grants to VIPA for both Rohlsen Airport and Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas.
"The FAA has made it clear to the local government that should there not be compliance to the previously set schedule to close Anguilla, that they will cease all monies earmarked for both airports," Brin told the lawmakers.
He said federal grant money has typically totaled about $3 million annually, but "from time to time we make a pitch for discretionary funds, and we have in fact received those monies."
Without the FAA grants and discretionary funding, repairs to taxiways, runways and other airport operational areas will not take place, Brin said, because VIPA is not in the position to fund them. And lack of maintenance, he added, "could lead to decertification of the airports."
Sen Roosevelt David said he was "troubled to hear of the FAA's latest warnings" Under questioning, Brin said King Airport is to receive about $10 million in discretionary funds for work on the taxiway while about $14 million in such funds is earmarked for Rohlsen, much of it for the runway expansion.
"I feel we should have a major shakeup," David said. "How can we continue to miss deadline after deadline and lose federal monies?"
Decertification of the St. Croix airport "could be even more devastating" than closing it down, David said, "because the message sent will be that of airports in the Virgin Islands being not airworthy."
Private sector not surprised but concerned
Bill Turner, St. Croix Environmental Association executive director, said on Monday that he was not surprised by the latest development. "Nothing startles SEA anymore," he said. "We have been saying all along that there are serious problems which must be addressed. … You're not going to see only the FAA take such action; a number of federal agencies will follow suit."
The federal government's action against the Virgin Islands is a clear indication of the belief in Washington that federal dollars pumped into the territory are not being spent according to standards, Turner said. Noting that the landfill concerns have been expressed time and again, he said the FAA warnings could deal a serious blow not only to the economy of St. Croix but to the islands' environment."
Frank Fox, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce president, also said on Monday that the federal move does not bode well for the district. "It's absolutely critical that we do not lose the airport certification or the federal funding for the airport expansion," he said, calling on the government to provide more than lip service in developing long-range solid waste management policies.
"We need to prioritize spending and cut out the waste so that real solutions can be funded," Fox said. He said spending priorities should include improvements to the island's infrastructure — sewer system, public schools, Police Department and Fire Service.
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