Dec. 5, 2003 – About noon on Friday, a bit of history was made in the territory when — after decades of discarded plans and endless debate — a bill creating a Waste Management Authority was unanimously passed by the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee.
It was an emotional moment. "This is a monumental day for the territory," Sonya Nelthropp, Public Works senior manager for federal compliance, said, barely hiding tears.
Nelthropp returned to St. Thomas four years ago to take on the task of creating order out of the chaos in V.I. waste management — collecting, treating and disposing of the territory's waste. She proclaimed on Friday that "the Virgin Islands has now come in line with the Caribbean and the rest of the world."
It hasn't been an easy four years. Wastewater management is now being controlled by the courts. After number of orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and District Court, the territory is facing severe penalties for failure to comply.
The Public Works Department is underfunded and overburdened, Nelthropp said in the department's business proposal for the authority, subtitled "Let's begin the solution to end our pollution." Public Works cannot handle wastewater management and infrastructure; clean water distribution; highway and road repair planning and maintenance; and related issues with its limited financial and human resources, she said.
Street lighting has been taken over by the Water and Power Authority, but Public Works still is responsible for maintenance and infrastructure.
The committee chair, Sen. Louis Hill, shared Nelthropp's relief at getting the bill out of committee for the first time in its long legislative ramblings. "It's been decades in the works," he said, praising the community for its support in public hearings on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. He expressed hope the bill could be passed by the full Senate and delivered to the governor's desk by Christmas.
Hill has high hopes the bill will win approval from the Rules Committee on Dec. 12 and make its way to the Senate floor for a Dec. 17 session.
Nelthropp is all set to act on that. "If it passes, the governor has 15 days to submit his board of directors to the Legislature," she said. Once the board members are approved, the authority can start to become a reality, she said.
First, Public Works would move to establish the Waste Management Authority. Over an 18-month transition period the authority would be developed, funded and staffed and would initiate operations.
"First, we need a small facility on St. Thomas and on St. Croix," Nelthropp said. The facilities won't have to be large, she said, because the support staff will be minimal — the authority will be hiring about 10 to 15 new employees. She said she has sites in mind but declined to identify them on Friday.
She said the authority would have total staff of "about 200," mostly personnel working in the field, and that about 125 Public Works employees would be transferred to the new agency.
The main sticking point since the committee's last meeting has been the composition of the authority's seven-member board. An amendment proposed by Hill and approved on Friday changes its makeup from five non-government and two government members to four non-government and three government members.
One government member would be the Public Works commissioner. At least one would be a person with experience in environmental or physical science. The earlier version of the legislation provided for the government representatives to be cabinet members.
The non-government members would comprise one from St. Thomas, one from St. John and two from St. Croix. One would have to have an engineering or construction background, one a business background, and one an environmental engineering background.
Hill's amendment also provides for the Planning and Natural Resources Department to continue its significant oversight role in waste management.
A source of community concern has been a proposed "environmental user fee" that would be used initially to repay bonds and finance the authority's startup costs. The fee would be assessed on imported materials and as passed on to consumers would work out to about 20 cents a day per person, according to the authority business plan.
The annual budget for the authority once it is fully operational is estimated at $43 million. Funding would be generated through bond issuance and loans from the EPA and the U.S. Interior and Agriculture Departments. The plan also calls for startup funding of $4 million from a V.I. government grant.
Nelthropp said the user fee is currently pegged at one cent per pound, but this is flexible, not "set in stone," and would be on a sliding scale. The fee would be spread out to all segments of the community, including tourist items, she said, and would be regulated by the Public Services Commission.
She and John Green, Public Works senior solid waste coordinator, also said that retailers would be able to deduct the fee from their gross receipts taxes. "It will be sort of a pass-through," Green said, "so they don't have to pass it on to consumers."
"The fee is based on materials that will wind up in the landfill," Nelthropp said. "The business community will help us determine the scale." For instance, she said, processed baby food generates several types of waste. "First, baby food comes in glass jars on wooden palettes wrapped in lots of plastic," she said. "After that, there's the disposable diapers."
Bulk building materials such as cement and diesel fuel will not be subject to the fee, as they are used up and do not have to be disposed of as waste, she said. However, if the cement is imported in bags, they would be subject to the fee.
A benefit for the community, Nelthropp said, is that the plan eliminates a landfill "tipping fee." "Therefore, we won't have people dumping garbage, tires, whatever [in unauthorized ways and places] to avoid the fee," she said.
Earlier this year, plans for an "environmental impact fee" of 2 cents per pound on imported and locally manufactured goods created havoc with senators, the governor, the business community and consumers. The governor proposed the fee as part of his fiscal recovery package, the Legislature passed it, the governor signed it into law, the Legislature then repealed the fee, and the governor then signed that measure as well.
Two CZM permits approved; one held
In other action on Friday, the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee approved two Coastal Zone Management minor permits and held one in committee.
Approved were permits for continued use of a private wooden dock in Estate Nazareth by D-J's Company and for continued use and occupancy of a private dock and submerged land on Lovango Cay by the Wallace K. Leopold Lifetime Trust.
A permit request from the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Fish and Wildlife Division to construct a 40-foot boat ramp at Parcel No. 101 Estate Nazareth was held in committee because of confusion about whether it allows the agency to dredge in the area.
It took unanimous votes to approve measures on Friday, as only four of the seven committee members were present: Sens. Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Hill and Ronald Russell. Absent were Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Shawn-Michael Malone. Also present was Sen. Luther Renee, who is not a member of the committee.
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