April 26, 2005 Virgin Islands senators had to use subpoenas and even a threat to arrest former Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood, but they finally managed to get the testifiers they wanted at a Committee of the Whole hearing Tuesday on St. Thomas.
Senators had originally requested that government officials involved in signing a contract for building a wastewater facility on St. Croix appear at a meeting April 14. The plans for that facility have become embroiled in controversy, as many residents have advocated a more natural way of treating wastewater. Representatives from organizations such as Team St. Croix and St. Croix Environmental Association say a reconstructed wetlands treatment system could save St. Croix residents money and make water available for farm use.
When none of the government officials showed up at the April 14 meeting, the Senate issued subpoenas to Callwood; Winston Adams, chairman of the Waste Management Authority; George Phillips, acting commissioner at the Department of Public Works; and Sonya Nelthropp, interim executive director of the Waste Management Authority.
Senate President Lorraine Berry reported at the beginning of the meeting Tuesday that Callwood had refused to accept the subpoena. Sen. Ronald Russell said, "I have never heard of anyone refusing a subpoena. That is unacceptable."
Senators then passed a resolution that said a warrant should be issued to force Callwood to comply. That was not necessary, however, as Callwood showed up in the legislative chambers a couple hours later.
After some political speech making and clearing up the questions about subpoenas, it was noon before the senators actually began asking questions about the contract for the treatment plant and whether a change order could incorporate some of the ideas of the reconstructed wetlands.
Callwood answered most questions by saying he did not have time to review the necessary documents and therefore could not answer the question. The contract for the facility went out for bid in September 2002, before the Waste Management Authority was created. The Department of Public Works was in charge of treating waste at that time.
Adams, Phillips and Nelthropp all said they thought it would be a bad idea to try to change the contract with VWNA Caribbean, commonly known as VEIOLA, to build the St. Croix plant. Iver Stridiron, former V.I. attorney general and present counsel for the Waste Management Authority, also said he saw problems changing the contract now. Referring to a consent decree the Virgin Islands has with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he said, "Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of delaying this project for an additional 16 months."
Changes could cause problems with the $85 million in bonds the V.I. government sold to fund the plants on St. Croix and St. Thomas, Phillips said. Bondholders were led to believe the V.I. government was following through on this contract when the bonds were sold, he said.
Adams said, "In the face of all of these activities completed over a several years period, we now have the St. Croix group and an entrepreneur who are suggesting that the government should either revise the project, delay the project or worse, breach the contract, so that their pet project — a wetlands treatment system — can be built and studied at government expense." He added, "If you do so, you do so at your own peril, that peril being contempt citations and the possible jailing of government officials, and a very costly lawsuit by the parties to the contract."
The government has already committed to spending more than $9 million with VEIOLA, and a Notice to Proceed was signed with the company on April 1, Nelthropp said.
Sen. Neville James said, "The timing here is unfortunate. We seem to be late, as usual."
Sen. Ronald Russell seemed to illustrate much of the frustration in the room when he said, "I support wetlands reconstruction, but I don't know what we can do at this point."
After the government officials testified, advocates for wetlands construction made a presentation. They included Kelly Gloger of Sustainable Systems and Design International; Megan Shoenfelt, executive director St. Croix Environmental Association; Patrick Mahoney of Energy Answers Corporation; and Mary Moorhead, representing Team St. Croix.
While Nelthropp said several times in her testimony that she did not believe the wetlands construction method would save money, Gloger said the savings were obvious.
The traditional plant would pay about $70,000 a year in power bills at today's prices, while the power bill would be minimal with the wetlands system, he said.
Gloger also took exception to the idea that wetland reconstruction just came on the scene. He said advocates had promoted it before the contract went out for bid.
Moorhead responded to a remark by Sen. Roosevelt David, who said he was "not going to pander to every little group that jumps up." Moorhead pointed out that Team St. Croix has a broad membership with representatives from most of St. Croix's civic organizations.
Berry is awaiting input from the U.S. EPA. She also has directed the Senate legal counsel to write a legal analysis of the wastewater treatment facilities contract.
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