WMA Director Give Judge Details of Anguilla Fire Damage

Smoke billows on Sunday afternoon from a fire at the Anguilla Landfill, adjacent to the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)
Smoke billows on June 30, 2019, from a fire at the Anguilla Landfill, adjacent to the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix. (Source file photo by Susan Ellis)

The head of the Waste Management Authority told a federal judge how a nine-day landfill fire dealt a setback to the agency’s plans to close St. Croix’s Anguilla Landfill.

Under the terms of a nine-year-old settlement agreement, Anguilla was supposed to close Sept. 30, 2018.

Using photos to illustrate the story, Waste Management Director Arian Taylor explained how the fire flared up and spread through a shed housing the landfill’s solid waste compactor. It also spread through an area where vehicles used by a landfill contractor were parked, destroying three vehicles.

From there, the fire moved to an area where unprocessed abandoned vehicles sat, igniting gas tanks, and to a nearby pile of scrap tires.

Taylor said by the time emergency crews put out the blaze nine days later, exposed radials sat where the fire’s path burned through the tire pile.

Tuesday’s scheduled hearing gave District Court Judge Curtis Gomez a chance to question the director about how close Waste Management has come to closing Anguilla. After hearing Taylor’s testimony the judge pointed to the director’s experience managing a landfill in the Pacific territory of Guam.

There were similarities in the two territory’s problems, Gomez said. Each had lingering landfill problems brought on by years of neglect and government failure to take action in a timely manner.

The judge also pressed for answers about the June fire’s impact on nearby Henry Rohlsen Airport. Taylor said the airport was affected by smoke drifting from Anguilla on a southerly wind.

Under further questioning, the director disclosed concerns about the fire arrived in a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Gomez asked why the FAA was concerned about the fires.

Because of smoke heading towards the airport, Taylor replied.

Another of the aviation agency’s concerns also worsened as a result of the fire. Taylor said the temporary loss of the solid waste compactor and bailer left waste to pile higher, possibly attracting scavenging birds. Taylor said his agency staff has already ordered replacement parts to get the damaged compactor back in operation.

Delivery and installation are expected to be done in four months, he said.

But in the midst of testimony, some encouraging developments surfaced. The director told the court a new landfill site at Estate Pearl had been identified and approved by Government House.

The new site already proved its worth by providing a place to park new Waste Management vehicles to be used in transferring materials now at Anguilla. Had it not been available, those new WMA vehicles would have also been in the path of the June fire, parked near the contractor’s equipment.

There was also testimony about a recently completed site assessment at Estate Pearl. Taylor told the court the study showed there was no groundwater detected, and while the site was near a floodplain surveyors said any flood waters would likely run off away from the area.

But a skeptical Gomez kept pressing for answers.

“If it turns out that Anguilla 2 is not ready on time, have you considered any alternatives?” he said.

“Yes. We have been looking at shipping trash off island,” the director said.

At a projected cost of $111/ton, and given an estimated daily haul of 200 tons of solid waste, Taylor said taking that path could cost the territory $1 million.

By the end of the hearing the judge said he continued to be encouraged by Waste Management’s actions. But Gomez said the court is not willing to accept generalities about the progress being made to close the current landfill site.

He also pulled back slightly from suggesting Waste Management be placed under federal receivership. But Gomez said the scheduled hearing on Thursday about the agency’s handling of wastewater problems will play a factor in the court’s leanings.

“Is there is a need for some sort of coercive corridor to make things happen? In order to achieve some sort of compliance?”

U.S. Justice Department Senior Lawyer Mark Gallager deflected the question.

“At this point, there is not going to be an ideal result. There is either going to be trash piling up on the streets or the Virgin Islands government will be spending lots of money to move trash off island,” he said.