Although the V.I. Waste Management Authority still has a long way to go, including addressing major funding issues, it has made notable progress in the last three months toward closing the territory’s landfills as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
During a federal hearing on Tuesday morning on St. Thomas, VIWMA’s executive director Roger Merritt told the court that the authority is starting to complete projects that must be handled before the environmentally hazardous landfills can be capped.
Honorable Curtis V. Gomez, U.S. District Judge for the District Court of the Virgin Islands, called the progress “noteworthy, refreshing and appreciated,” but questioned why more hadn’t been accomplished.
On behalf of the EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the V.I. government in November 2015 after VIWMA missed deadlines for turning in closure plans and status reports for the Bovoni landfill on St. Thomas and the Anguilla landfill on St. Croix.
VIWMA has since entered a court-mandated consent decree. According to the decree, the target date for Anguilla’s closure is June 30, 2020. The Bovoni decree doesn’t indicate a specific date but notes it must be closed two years and two months after it stops accepting waste on April 30, 2019.
The priority items stipulated by the court that VIWMA needs to complete before moving forward include purchasing and installing a high-volume tire shredder, relocating utility poles, constructing an access road, building a berm and removing scrap metal.
According to Merritt, Bovoni’s utility poles have been moved and the landfill’s access road is nearly completed. He said work is also well underway on the berm.
Removing tires and scrap metal remain major environmental concerns, but Merrit said the authority is in the process of working with a contractor to remove the scrap metal and is getting close to purchasing a tire shredder.
The more than 200,000 tires in the territory’s two landfills cause underground fires, and scrap metals pollute surrounding waters, including the mangrove lagoon area next to Bovoni.
Dawn Henry, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, testified that her department is assisting VIWMA with addressing stormwater runoff pollution at the landfills.
“The primary concern is the wellbeing of the community,” Gomez said. “That in and of itself should spur remarkable urgency.”
Gomez stressed the urgent need for their removal, noting that tires can be mosquito-breeding habitats. About 5,000 new tires are added to the landfills each month.
Gomez also raised concern over the lack of communication between the Department of Health and VIWMA regarding mosquito eradication efforts. Health is spraying the landfills every two weeks to kill larvae.
Department of Public Works Commissioner Gustav James, who is assisting VIWMA in complying with the consent decree and who testified during the hearing, said purchase of the tire shredder will be approved in the next two weeks and it will arrive 12 to 16 weeks later.
The plan is to purchase a portable shredder that it can be hauled to each island when there’s a stockpile of tires. Transporting the shredder would be more economical than buying one for each island, said James.
While shredded tires could be used to make asphalt, the cost of buying a machine that can shred tires fine enough to do so is too costly for the authority. For that reason, shredded tires will be sold and sent off island to be burned as fuel, or could possibly be used as fill in local construction projects.
Given that the landfills are quickly running out of space, Merritt said future recycling measures will help cut waste generation by 40 percent and will extend the life of the landfills.
The EPA’s counsel and Gomez questioned how VIWMA plans to fund the closure of the landfills, since the estimated cost to close both is around $80 million. With funding shortfalls rampant throughout the local government, the EPA isn’t confident the authority will be able to pay for the capping.
Merritt explained that the funding will come from tipping fees that will be charged for depositing trash. The fees have been approved but not yet implemented, and are expected to generate about $7 million each year, he said.
Before tipping fees can start being collected, VIWMA has to repair and install scales, as well as install payment systems that can accept credits cards. Merritt suspects it will take about six months for those issues to be sorted out and that waste haulers can expect to start paying fees by the late summer.