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Brown Water Issue in St. Croix: Calls Amplify for Emergency Action

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St. Croix, a picturesque Caribbean jewel, currently grapples with a disconcerting challenge: murky, undrinkable brown water pouring out of household taps. The situation has prompted the local lawmakers to call for an official state of emergency, seeing it as a dire crisis that demands immediate attention.

Andrew Smith, the CEO of the Water and Power Authority (WAPA), elaborated on the issue during an in-depth conversation with the Senate Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning. Smith pointed to the island’s water system that has been in place for over six decades as the primary culprit. As these iron pipes age, they corrode and release rust, muddying the water. A recent drought has further worsened matters, with WAPA’s water storage tanks dwindling to precarious levels.

It’s heartening to note that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management System) is poised to overhaul St. Croix’s entire wastewater mechanism. However, this doesn’t offer immediate relief to locals dealing with unsavory odors and the looming costs of comprehensive filtration solutions. Senators Alma Francis-Heyliger and Samuel Carrion stress the urgency of tapping into federal resources for more expedient help.

Smith, providing a granular analysis, commented, “The majority of this water discolouration arises from the deteriorating pipes, coupled with sediment from the iron content.” Adding that the drought’s role in reducing water storage has heightened the issue. Specifically, Frederiksted, a local town, has been hardest hit. But, contrary to rumors, Smith clarified this wasn’t due to underfunding but its geographical position relative to St. Croix’s water distribution infrastructure.

Flushing the system using fire hydrants, a standard procedure to address discolored water, is currently off the table. With the low water reserves, such a move would deplete pressures further, exacerbating the brown water situation.

Fixing this deep-seated problem isn’t cheap. Replacing the old, rusty pipes would siphon off nearly $1 billion, equivalent to the territory’s annual budget. Sensing the urgency, Senator Carrion has already penned a letter to Governor Albert Bryan Jr., emphasizing the need for an emergency declaration – a call that hasn’t yet received a response.

It’s encouraging that, by July, WAPA had advanced its application process for FEMA funds intended for a robust overhaul of St. Croix’s water infrastructure. Yet, this is a long-term solution. For now, WAPA is brainstorming localized solutions like utility-scale filtration units in the most affected areas.

Recent odor complaints linked to a Sargassum influx further complicate matters. Though larger algae particles can be filtered out, once they decompose, the resulting taint in the drinking water becomes a challenge to eliminate. Smith cited two primary reasons for the lingering stench. First, residents, due to the drought, are tapping into stored WAPA water, which retains the residual Sargassum odor. Additionally, the low water flow, which also causes discoloration, intensifies this problem.

In brighter news, WAPA has amped up its efforts with regular system flushes, additional water treatment chemicals, and frequent quality checks. According to Smith, the authority consistently aligns with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s primary standards. However, there’s a slight caveat: testing doesn’t extend to end-users, which is where most quality complaints emerge.

Smith also addressed concerns about WAPA’s recent tariff increase under the Levelized Energy Adjustment Clause (LEAC) for water. He affirmed that the rates are strictly pegged to service costs. He clarified that their drinking water provider, Seven Seas, wasn’t to blame for the brown water issue. Historically, he added, an artificially-low LEAC led to inadequate funds, restricting WAPA from revamping critical aspects of its infrastructure.

This evolving situation in St. Croix underscores the pressing need for infrastructural investments and proactive measures to ensure residents’ well-being.

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Nearly All Impacted by WAPA Billing Error Receive Refunds

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The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) has resolved a billing error that inadvertently affected around 3,000 customers due to a glitch during system testing. The mishap occurred on Monday evening when, during a routine trial in their billing system’s test environment, unintended charges were mistakenly applied to customer accounts.

WAPA acted promptly to address the error, successfully reversing the incorrect charges for all affected accounts except two. Customers who were impacted should see a reversal transaction on their account statements, which will display as a negative amount reflecting the refund.

The utility also clarified that for those customers whose charges are still showing as pending on their bank statements, these will automatically be removed without any action needed from the customer. WAPA stressed that these pending charges will simply disappear, and the customer’s balance will adjust accordingly.

WAPA expressed regret over the confusion and inconvenience caused by the glitch. They are currently making efforts to ensure all remaining issues are swiftly corrected to prevent future occurrences.

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Rotational Power Outages Scheduled in USVI Due to Weather and Equipment Challenges

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The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) has scheduled rotational power outages across the St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix districts. This decision stems from challenging marine weather conditions and malfunctioning generation units. The authority views these outages as a strategic approach to circumvent more extensive power disruptions and to keep electricity flowing in critical areas.

Ashley Bryan, WAPA’s Chief Operation Officer, emphasized the necessity of these outages. “While we recognize the disruptions our decision may cause, these measures are crucial to prevent broader outages and ensure ongoing electrical service over the weekend,” Bryan stated. She further highlighted the efforts to balance the impact of short-term outages on fewer customers against the risk of more widespread blackouts.

Specifically, in the St. Thomas/St. John district, the combination of adverse weather and a dwindling fuel supply raises the potential for widespread power failure. To counter this threat, WAPA plans to initiate rotational outages from late Friday or early Saturday, continuing through Sunday, prioritizing electricity for essential services.

In St. Croix, the problem is compounded by several offline generation units, which will lead to reduced power output from the Estate Richmond Power Plant beginning Saturday. To manage this, the authority will implement outages during peak times—noon to 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.—until further notice. WAPA is calling on all residents and businesses to conserve energy, which is vital for stabilizing the grid and ensuring functional feeders.

WAPA is actively working on these challenges to reduce the frequency and duration of disruptions and extends its apologies for any inconvenience these necessary measures may cause.

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PSC Stands Ground on Electricity Rates Despite WAPA’s Deferred Fuel Cost Dilemma

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The Public Services Commission (PSC) recently addressed the Water & Power Authority’s (WAPA) plea to extend the existing electricity rate under the Levelized Energy Adjustment Clause (LEAC), amid discussions about the disparity between WAPA’s fuel expenditures and the costs recovered from consumers.

WAPA’s argument of a burgeoning deferred fuel cost balance could not sway the commission, primarily due to the absence of audited financial statements for recent years. This lack of financial transparency hampered discussions about transferring these costs to consumers, the PSC highlighted.

During a presentation, consultant Jim Madden pointed out that WAPA has requested the maintenance of the current LEAC rate of 22.22 cents per kilowatt-hour until at least June 30. He emphasized that while considering this extension, it’s important to acknowledge the deferred fuel balance for the electric system stood at $18 million as per the latest audited financial statement from fiscal year 2020, nearly three and a half years ago.

PSC Commissioner David Hughes intervened with a reminder that the commission had previously resolved to defer discussions on deferred fuel balances until WAPA submits audited financial statements. A brief discussion ensued, leading to a consensus to hear out the report with the understanding that no decisions regarding the deferred fuel cost balance would be concluded.

Madden expressed that the resolution on how to manage the growing gap between fuel costs and consumer charges depends on guidance from the commission. Yet, Hughes posited that this disparity might not even exist, suggesting that a reevaluation of the calculations could eliminate the deferred fuel balance from WAPA’s financial records. The true state of affairs, he argued, could only be determined through the pending audits.

Clarifying WAPA’s stance, CEO Andrew Smith mentioned that the utility is not seeking deferred fuel recovery at the moment. Subsequently, Hughes proposed, and the commission unanimously agreed, to extend the current LEAC rate into the upcoming quarter.

However, Madden hinted at the looming necessity to address the recorded discrepancies, suggesting that this issue might resurface in future discussions.

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