April 13, 2002 – A $20,000 appropriation for sewage treatment at what is arguably St. Thomas's best-known tourist attraction — Magens Bay beach — has been held back by the Office of Management and Budget for lack of available funds.
In a letter to Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg dated Feb. 20, OMB Director Ira Mills said that although the "preservation of the natural environment is of great importance," his office "must be guided by fiscal responsibility" and cannot provide the money to the Magens Bay Authority.
Mills said in his letter that the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund is "over-obligated" and funds are not available for any additional expenditures. According to Mills, funding for the Magens Bay beach project will not be released until the fund "can reasonably sustain this expenditure."
Donastorg, who sponsored the legislation to provide the funding for the Magens Bay Authority's new wastewater treatment plant, issued a statement Friday calling on Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to "immediately release funds appropriated for the upgrade of the Magens Bay sewage treatment system."
Toni Thomas, a University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service agent, has worked on the Magens Bay sewage project for more than three years. She said it is part of wider experimentation with alternative wastewater treatment systems.
According to Thomas, delay in the appropriation could spell doom for the project."It's relatively small, but it was crucial to making this thing work," she said.
She said the alternative system she and others have been working on utilizes plants and gravel to clean wastewater from septic tanks. Wastewater collected in three septic tanks, she said, is funneled into a series of trenches containing a layer of gravel topped with a fabric overlay and then a layer of soil. Plants growing in the trenches accomplish two things — microorganisms in their roots break down bacteria and remove extra water from the trench, and the water is utilized by the plants and then released into the air through the leaves.
Thomas called the system a "win-win situation" adding that any excess water generated in the treatment process would be clean enough to use for irrigation purposes or to release into the environment.
Without the $20,000 appropriation, she said, changes necessary to compensate for an unexpectedly high usage of the Magens Bay sewage system cannot be made. "We needed that money to make the alterations," she said.
Donastorg called the delay in funding "irresponsible." He said failing to act to improve Magens Bay's infrastructure could have negative results. He said the fact that more than 10,000 people use Magens Bay each week makes a functioning sewage system "essential for public health and environmental protection."
"The new sewage treatment system is not an optional project," he said, "but an essential project."
Currently, Thomas said, the new system is being utilized in conjunction with the existing sewage system — which she said is more than 40 years old. "Right now, we're in a situation that I would say is okay," she said. "We're monitoring really closely. The public health is foremost in everyone's minds."
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