In 1974, when the Virgin Islands’ population was less than 11,000, the government’s annual agenda included a national sewage treatment plant that would help eliminate the need to flush Tortola’s raw waste directly into the ocean.
Nearly 50 years later, the population has tripled, but Tortola’s untreated sewage is still going straight into the ocean off Slaney Point.
This practice must stop. We are therefore glad that the government has finally allocated the money to recommission the Burt Point sewage treatment plant, which has been offline since Hurricane Irma.
However, this $1.4 million step is only a small part of the work needed to bring Tortola a proper public sewerage system.
The plant promised in 1974, of course, didn’t happen that year. And in the ensuing decades, sewerage progress was absurdly slow as contracts were politicised, plans changed with each new administration, and subpar work had to be scrapped and restarted again and again — all costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars with precious little to show for it.
Real progress finally came after the then-Virgin Islands Party-led government awarded a no-bid contract to the United Kingdom-based company Biwater in 2010. Although the lack of transparency surrounding the deal was a scandal — leaving taxpayers with no idea whether they received good value for money — Biwater completed two sewerage treatment plants as part of the deal: one at Burt Point and one in Paraquita Bay.
Government, however, didn’t hold up its end of the bargain by completing the sewage lines and other works necessary to transport the island’s waste to the two new treatment facilities.
As a result, the Burt Point plant only ever operated at partial capacity after it was commissioned in 2015. And the Paraquita Bay plant — which was completed around the same time — was never commissioned at all because the government never laid the pipes to connect it to East End.
Government’s efforts to modernise the piping systems were supposedly ongoing when Hurricane Irma hit, knocking the Burt Point plant offline and setting back other work yet again.
Since then, successive governments have failed to access adequate funding for the Irma recovery — including inexplicably refusing the £300 million recovery loan guarantee offered by the UK — and sewerage projects have largely stalled as a result.
Last month, officials finally announced a $1.4 million contract with Biwater to get the Burt Point plant up and running again. This is a welcome move. But millions more will be needed to repair existing infrastructure in the Road Town area and lay the pipes connecting the Paraquita Bay plant to East End.
As an urgent priority, government must source the funds for a comprehensive solution that will see Tortola get a proper public sewage system once and for all.
The patchwork method has failed for half a century, and it won’t work now. Meanwhile, the current system of flushing raw sewage directly into the ocean is a national disgrace.