New WMA Director Points to Better Ways of Handling Landfill Fires

Smoke from a March fire at the Anguilla Landfill caused a smokey day on St Croix. (Susan Ellis photo)
Smoke from a March fire at the Anguilla Landfill caused a smokey day on St Croix. (Susan Ellis photo)

Testimony provided by Adrian Taylor, the interim director of the Waste Management Authority, on conditions at the territory’s landfills received a favorable response from a judge on St. Thomas Wednesday.

But the court’s reaction turned slightly when the questions turned to the actions of a co-defendant in the federal lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. There was no sign of representatives from the V.I. Port Authority, the agency responsible for operations of the territory’s air and marine terminals.

Taylor is the second interim director to lead the WMA since the February departure of former Executive Director Roger Merritt III. Since then the landfills and the territory’s wastewater system have faced pressure from system failures, funding shortages and spotty staffing. WMA appeared to be headed towards an uncertain future as a court-sanctioned deadline to close one V.I. landfill came and went on Sept. 30.

Those events also clouded the work of the court to keep WMA marching towards compliance on a six-year-old consent decree covering Anguilla and its St. Thomas counterpart, the Bovoni landfill. The last time Taylor was expected to appear – on Sept. 26 – he did not. At that time a fire was in progress at St. Croix’s Anguilla landfill. Lawyers representing WMA told District Court Judge Curtis Gomez that Taylor opted to respond to the fire scene. That left District Court Judge Curtis Gomez without anyone in authority to report on what progress – if any – had been achieved since the last compliance hearing in July.

By the time he returned to the courtroom to testify at an evidentiary hearing in a landfill consent decree case, Taylor said he had new insights about fire management, the need for training and the prudent use of resources.

Those comments came along with an explanation for the latest fire to erupt at Anguilla, this time in the pile of mulched storm debris produced in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. While the Sept. 26 fire lasted close to 12 hours, it took more than a day to contain the mulch fire.

Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas. (File photo)
Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas. (File photo)

Both blazes had something in common, Taylor said. A persistent, subsurface fire fueled by decomposing trash.

The response by first responders, both WMA staff and the fire service, could have been better, the director said.

“The way they were doing it, they were treating it like a house fire; spraying water on it and hoping it would go out,” Taylor said.

Instead, landfill fires should be smothered, he said. To illustrate, he cited initial firefighter reports of a smouldering fire in a mulch fire near the landfill entrance.

Firefighters sprayed the pile with water. That kept the pile smouldering but didn’t put the fire out, he said.

Eventually the muted fire migrated to a nearby – dry – mulch pile, giving the blaze new life. Future landfill fire management would benefit from some retraining, he said.

The judge said he was pleased to see some progress made. At the same time Gomez pointed to some persistent gaps in the Anguilla narrative. For decades, authorities at the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental Enforcement Division demanded that the territory close Anguilla and Bovoni.

“I’m certainly pleased with some of the progress here and the testimony by Mr. Taylor,” he said. But Gomez added he was not satisfied with Taylor’s answers to questions about the recently passed deadline.

Twice the director was asked if the Port Authority – a co defendant in the landfill case – had reached an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration over extending the September deadline.

According to court documents related to the case, the FAA’s greatest concern is the navigation hazard posed by scavenger birds to aircraft at nearby Henry Rolshen Airport. Birds are attracted to food mixed in with solid waste at the neighboring landfill.

Getting rid of the birds is one of the FAA’s mandates to WMA. Razor strips have been installed in the area, but Gomez said that’s only part of the solution.

Twice in court on Wednesday Taylor said that, based on emails he had read, he thought Port Authority and the FAA were on the same page about bird mitigation. Finally, the director admitted to the court he did not know.

After the hearing the Source reached out to FAA Communications Manager Kathleen Bergen at the Atlanta regional office. Bergen cited an agency source who said, “the FAA has not received a request from the Virgin Islands Port Authority to extend the landfill closure date.”

Reached through a spokerson late in the day on Wednesday, Port Authority Executive David Mapp said VIPA did not appear at the hearing because they weren’t notified.

“The Port Authority did not receive any notification of the hearing. That’s why they weren’t there,” said VIPA spokeswoman Monife Braithwaite.

The director also said VIPA is aware of some obligations Waste Management must fulfill to comply with FAA safety requirements.

“VIPA has not received notification regarding a letter of concurrence. We’re awaiting it,” Braithwaite said.