St. Thomas ⎯ After weeks of service interruptions in both districts, an investigative hearing was held Tuesday to question officials of the Water and Power Authority (WAPA) about issues plaguing both of its power plants. There are two important events at play that evolved into this week’s Senate hearing.
- Aug. 28th – Hurricane Dorian makes landfall in St. Thomas as a category 1 storm.
- Aug. 29th – WAPA restores electricity to 100% of its St. Croix customers in a matter of hours.
- WAPA begins experiencing issues with generation capacity at both of its power plants following Hurricane Dorian. Frequent blackouts, primarily in the St. Thomas – St. John district, with persisting water quality issues in both districts prompting senators of the 33rd Legislature to question officials about the quality of their service.
- Sept. 10th – WAPA announces it is seeking “technical assistance from New York Power Authority to resolve ongoing electrical system issues.” The partnership received a positive nod from Government House.
- Sept. 18th – Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett releases a four-page statement calling on Governor Albert Bryan Jr. and Senate President Novelle Francis to consider declaring a State of Emergency to qualify for federal funds and special waivers that could potentially stabilize WAPA.
- Sept. 19th – Senator Novelle Francis acknowledges receipt of Plaskett’s letter.
- Sep. 30th – Ahead of the scheduled October 1st hearing, Governor Bryan pleaded with Senators to “ask the tough questions. Ask the questions that need to be asked – but please don’t make disparaging comments that are baseless about corruption and mismanagement unless you have proof.”
- Oct. 1 – Senators question WAPA in public investigative hearing that focused on the utility’s capacity, its infrastructure, ongoing financial woes, and management issues.
A series of events landed officials from WAPA in this week’s Senate hearing. The most significant development has been Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett’s unexpected call for a State of Emergency to address the territory’s ongoing “energy crisis.”
What makes Plaskett’s letter significant isn’t just her call for a State of Emergency or stating that “WAPA must take radical, extraordinary steps” to reliably serve the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands — Plaskett laid out a compelling case in a four-page document in September calling for emergency steps to be undertaken.
“Indeed, WAPA may need to seek federal court intervention as the authority’s operations are under duress by several of its vendor/creditors, creating an unfair advantage and negotiation toward other creditors and the people of the Virgin Islands,” Plaskett said.
Plaskett’s call for a State of Emergency addressing the territory’s energy crisis likely reached more Americans than Governor Bryan’s rebuff. In March, Plaskett gained over 40,000 Twitter followers in a matter of days following the Cohen hearing on Capitol Hill — making her the most followed elected official in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Today, I sent a letter to the Governor and the Senate President of the Virgin Islands regarding the long term state of affairs in addition to the regular power outages that are plaguing our Islands. These disruptions have impacted homes, workplaces, schools and particularly our residents with sensitive health concerns.
Plaskett voiced concerns for residents and vendors — pointing out two significant things in her letter to Governor Bryan and Senator Francis.
- The U.S. Virgin Islands is experiencing an energy crisis that has “impacted homes, workplaces, schools and particularly our residents with sensitive health concerns.”
- An energy crisis of this magnitude is also a public health crisis when considering the territory’s Medicaid Cliff and limited access to lifesaving resources in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Residents with health issues relying on stable electricity and clean potable water have been affected by frequent power outages — specifically senior citizens living on fixed incomes.
“I believe, however, what is happening at the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, as outlined in the aforementioned areas will have a negative domino effect in other areas of our territory – local business operations, public health and safety, and use of the federal disaster funds available, to name a few,” Plaskett added.
WAPA’s Executive Director, Lawrence J. Kupfer said Plaskett’s reference to the problems at the authority as being insidious in nature is a slap in the face to the hard-working men and women of WAPA who regularly put life and limb on the line to maintain and restore power.
Kupfer also maintained that the Delegate “ignores WAPA’s plans to address our challenges with the Virgin Islands Public Services Commission, and the transformation plan that we have developed and are executing.”
Kupfer wrote that WAPA sees no basis for the requested state of emergency as many of the initiatives Plaskett proposed have already been or soon will be taken up by the authority.
Plaskett said her office has had past discussions with WAPA, outside utility experts and finance experts and has concluded that the Virgin Islands is experiencing an energy crisis, citing that the territory’s energy crisis has “now reached a level of a State of Emergency.”
Featured image by Barry Leerdam and the 33rd Legislature.