Forty years ago, Her Majesty’s Stationer’s Office published a thin olive-green booklet titled British Virgin Islands 1974. It detailed the VI government’s activities for that year, devoting two sentences to de- scribing the territory’s nascent public sewer system.
“A small sewerage scheme serves a section of Road Town and Wickhams Cay with a direct outflow into the sea,” the booklet stated. “Plans have been put in hand to update the sewerage system and provide a treatment plant above the outfall.”
Four decades later — despite a financial services-led economic boom that has caused government’s budgets and the territory’s population to rise dramatically — little has changed. While the sewer system has been expanded to serve more than 1,500 house- holds and businesses in the Road Town and Cane Garden Bay areas, the rest of the territory lacks access to a public sewer system. Thus, most of the VI’s nearly 30,000 residents — including the large population centres of East End/Long Look — are left to rely on septic tanks or other privately run infrastructure, some of which is so old it leaks into the streets.
Additionally, the main public system lacks treatment facilities, meaning that raw sewage is pumped directly out to sea near Slaney Point, posing risks to human health and the environment.
For years, administrations led by the Virgin Islands Party and National Democratic Party have promised action. In 2002, a master plan drafted at a cost of $970,000 charted the way forward, and both parties have put considerable time, efforts and money into fixing the Road Town and EE/LL issues. But a series of administration changes, a lack of funding, and failure to follow through with plans have stymied efforts to expand public sewage collection and treatment across the territory.
Communications and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool has pledged that major progress is coming soon. Temporary solutions installed in the last 18 months have largely eliminated a previously common sewage stench in Road Town and Green- land. Loan funding is in place: $6 million for 2014 and $6 million for 2015. Mr. Vanterpool has said that next year should see the completion of works to rehabilitate Road Town pipes and pumping stations, complete the EE/LL pipe network, and build treatment plants in Burt Point and Paraquita Bay.
Once a further assessment is done in the coming months, efforts to plan, design and install public sewer systems for remaining unsewered communities will follow, according to the minister.
But if the experience of the past four decades is any indication, creating a territory-wide public system — an endeavour once forecast to cost $141 million overall — could take many more years and many more mil- lions of dollars, the funding source for which is unclear.
The VI received its first sewers in 1969 as part of the ill-fated Bates Hill development on Wick- hams Cay. English developer Kenneth Bates paid for 30 properties on the cay to be connected to a “temporary” outfall pipe that carried untreated waste out to Road Harbour via asbestos-lined pipes, according to a 1972 water and sewerage feasibility study. The study, conducted by the United Kingdom engineering firm Richards and Dumbleton, noted that some other residents — those without septic tanks or pit latrines — had to make “less than satisfactory” arrangements.
“Where there is no sanitation, the population use the bush and ghuts, and excrement is, generally, but not always, buried,” the study stated.
That system was adequate for the VI for decades, the engineers argued, because until the 1950s there were only about 6,000 people living here, a number that had risen to 10,500 by 1970, 2,200 of whom lived in 536 houses in Road Town. Still, communities such as Huntums Ghut and Long Bush, which lacked sewer access and got their drinking water from shallow wells, faced health risks, according to the study.
“Typhoid had occurred in the past and on a number of occasions there have been minor outbreaks of stomach disorders,” the engineers wrote. “Although these could not definitely be attributed to the lack of adequate sewerage facilities, this could well have been a contributing factor if not the main cause.”
The Richards and Dumbleton team recommended laying more sewers to serve Road Town, with a new outfall pipe to be extended to Slaney Point. They also called for East End to receive sewers. But because most homes had been built on available flat land, any sewer system couldn’t rely on gravity alone: Pumps were needed to move the waste to the sea, increasing the system’s cost and the need for repairs.
Still, the engineering firm estimated that a sum of $950,000 spent between 1972 and 1976 would be enough to lay sewers in most of Road Town and the surrounding areas. Another $600,000 would pay for sewers in East End, the study stated, adding that treating the VI’s waste, however desirable, was “not considered viable at the present time.”
Subsequent years and foreign aid brought progress. When then-51-year-old Queen Elizabeth II visited the territory on Oct. 26, 1977 in honour of her silver jubilee — the commemoration of her 25th year as queen — she gave the annual Speech from the Throne in person. In it, she pledged that the UK would contribute funds to the Road Town sewer network. Three years later, the extension of the Road Town system was completed, according to a 1980 government press release. Since then, few new pipelines have been added, although extensive repair work on the existing sys- tem occurs frequently.
In spite of the Road Town works, the EE system did not progress, and public officers with the newly formed Water and Sewerage Department focused largely on connecting the area to the public water supply.
While residents outside of Road Town managed to make do with their individual septic tanks or pit latrines, environmental concerns began to grow. On Feb. 14, 1986 Gene Creque, then government’s ports manager, wrote a memo to the territory’s chief medical officer after he witnessed a trucking company illegally dumping septic tank waste into mangroves near Paraquita Bay. Nicholas Clark, then manager of the National Parks Trust, said that dumping would likely cause a fish die-off in the area as bacteria found in the sewage would consume oxy- gen in the water.
Though some legislators — including then-opposition leader Cyril Romney, who during a 1991 Legislative Council meeting urged “urgent steps” to treat Road Town’s sewage — occasionally raised the issue, during the 1980s and 1990s government focused resources largely on extending the drinking water system across Tortola and the sister islands. But growing pollution in Cane Garden Bay drew attention to the issue. On occasion, algal blooms tinted the bay’s clear blue waters a murky green.
“There was a big flood back in ’97 that basically dumped all of the waste that was dumped in ghuts and tributaries and so forth and placed it into the water,” CBE Engineering founder Carvin Malone said in a recent interview. “So beaches had to be closed, tourism was affected, and the residents and businesspeople in Cane Garden Bay were looking for answers.”
The incident prompted 30 residents to gather at Myett’s Garden & Grill on April 15, 1997 to discuss the alarming finding that faecal coliform levels in two CGB salt ponds exceeded recommended standards.
“My concern is that we may be looking at the beginning of a domino,” then-Chief Conservation Officer Bertrand Lettsome said at the time. “The short-term solution is to do what is right. For too long in the BVI the environment bears the cost.”
Two and a half months later, the WSD announced that it was seeking bidders to build the territory’s first publicly run sewage treatment plant. Mr. Malone’s firm CBE received the $1.4 mil- lion contract. MCW officials hoped to connect CGB’s public restrooms, homes and businesses to the system by Jan. 1, 1998. It became operable eight months after that date, following a delay that then-CW Minister Alvin Christopher attributed to issues identifying how to route the plant’s outflow into the sea.
Despite completion, issues remained with the system’s implementation, according to a report by the Legislative Council’s Public Accounts Committee. The report stated that the treatment plant proposal was never reviewed and approved by the Town and Country Planning Department and that the facility should not have been sited near the Ivan Dawson Primary School. Additionally, the report alleged that some homes and businesses did not pay to connect to the system and install grease traps because the measures weren’t mandatory. That hampered the plant’s effectiveness in improving water quality, according to the report.
Mr. Malone, however, defended his firm’s work in an advertisement published in the Beacon on Jan. 10, 2002.
“The Cane Garden Bay project was designed, engineered and constructed by professionals,” the ad stated. “CBE is proud of the efficiency of each system installed.”
In 1997, as the CGB plant was being built, policymakers began to focus on other areas where there was a need for a sewage system: namely EE/LL and Road Town.
“You have a system in Road Town, albeit not the perfect sys- tem, so we’re trying to improve it,” Elvin Stoutt, then permanent secretary in the MCW, said at the time.
He added that $100,000 had been allocated in the 1998 budget to hire an engineer to study EE/LL’s sewage needs.
Pressure to address the territory-wide issues began to mount, often fuelling passionate debates in the Legislative Council.
“The sewage problem in this country is bad. We are literally covered in it,” then at-large representative Ronnie Skelton said during a July 28, 2000 debate.
He added that with an $11 mil- lion windfall budget surplus produced by the burgeoning financial services sector, the resources were in place to engineer a solution. Part of those resources funded a comprehensive review of the problem: a $1 million master plan drafted by a joint venture of the firms CBE and the Washington DC-based Louis Berger Group.
Several earlier studies had considered sewerage programmes for individual bays or analysed treatment methods, but the 391-page master plan was much more extensive: The document estimated what it would take to sewer the entire territory and treat its waste, including for the hundreds of yachts that use VI waters daily. The plan divided the National Sewerage Programme
into 44 projects split into eight “implementation packages” to be executed between 2002 and 2019. The study estimated how many people would live in the VI by 2031 — 38,752 — and developed its works schedule accordingly.
All told, it would cost $141 million in 2002 dollars to finish the 44 projects, according to the plan. Of that figure, some $115 million was to be spent on construction, and the rest would go towards studies, environmental impact assessments, and project management. The plan envisioned spending $10 million per year for the first five years and $5 million per year after that until the territory-wide system was built.
“Implementation of these could never have been afforded at any one go of it, so there were areas that were more critical than others. So the master plan prioritised,” Mr. Malone explained.
The strategy considered a variety of alternatives to treat the sewage in each of the VI’s major sub-regions.
On Tortola, as many as three new treatment plants were considered along with a series of in- dependent “package” plants for smaller communities. Treatment also would have been extended eventually to the sister islands.
By 2020, the plan predicted, it would cost an estimated $10 mil- lion per year to finance the system’s operations and maintenance. Expenses would have been offset by new $40-per-month-per- connection fees on households and businesses, as well as charges on yachts and tourists. The plan also called on the WSD to strengthen its capacity in the long run with improvements such as a national laboratory to test water quality, a territory-wide Geo- graphic Information System mapping tool to guide development, and an outreach unit at the WSD to educate children about the system.
But efforts to implement the territory-wide solution envisioned in the master plan would fall short in the subsequent decade as three successive administration changes brought new approaches to the problem. In many cases, new governments discontinued their predecessors’ plans and failed to commit the necessary resources, resulting in unfinished projects.
In 2002 policymakers announced plans to focus on re- solving the longstanding issues in EE/LL and Road Town with separate “immediate action plans” designed to be completed within a year. In Road Town, that meant replacing a decrepit system of aged pipes. In EE/LL it meant installing sewers in Greenland and along Little Dix Road and the Blackburne Highway.
Mr. Malone, whose firm had been granted a $1.2 million no- bid contract to provide engineering and project management services for both immediate action plans, said that government’s plans called for an “interceptor” facility to be built in Long Swamp, which would connect the EE/LL area to a planned treatment plant at Beef Island. The master plan called for a separate plant at Pockwood Pond to serve Road Town and western Tortola.
Work began months before elections but stalled after the new NDP administration took office on June 16, 2003, partly because the new leaders were deciding where to build the treatment plants, the Bea- con reported at the time.
The new government rejected placing an interceptor facility in Long Swamp, according to Mr. Malone, who in addition to his business duties also served as the VIP’s president.
“That was dismissed when the government came in: ‘We don’t want a treatment plant anywhere there,’” he said.
NDP policymakers were faced with a scarcity of available land and a plethora of alternative possibilities for the few sites that were suitable to build a treatment plant. For example, Paraquita Bay had been considered as a site for a second public high school. Meanwhile, developers sought Beef Island, which had also been mentioned in the master plan as a treatment plant site, in order to build a five- star hotel and golf course.
Officials focused their work on the EE/LL efforts, although decrepit pipes in the Road Town system often broke, requiring the WSD’s frequent attention. A complete replacement of the town’s aging pipe network would have required $11 million in extra funds, then-WSD director Julian Willock said in 2005. This did not occur.
Work on the EE/LL project continued into mid-2005, when it stopped due to a lack of funding, then-CW Minister Alvin Christopher told the Legislative Council at the time.
“The funds allocated to this project have already been expended,” Mr. Christopher said during a Dec. 14, 2005 meeting. “The ministry is completing a detailed project plan to include funding source and timeframe.”
Nearly a year later, during a Dec. 4 press conference, Elmore Stoutt, Mr. Christopher’s replacement as CW minister, made a similar promise. Laying of more than 4,000 feet of sewer main in the Greenland area would begin in 2007, he said, and the whole system would be ready by May of that year.
On Sept. 16, 2006, Mr. Stoutt signed two no-bid contracts with the firm Global Water Associates to design, build and operate a 250,000-gallon-per-day treatment plant in Paraquita Bay. The firm, which had partnered with former VI chief minister Cyril Romney, would provide government with a treatment plant in six months, Mr. Stoutt said.
But this did not occur. In- stead, Global Water later alleged, the NDP administration and the VIP administration that took office after the Aug. 20, 2007 election delayed in providing the company with land in Paraquita Bay for the plant.
Global Water continued to attempt to execute its contract while working with the new government and shipped a container full of equipment to the Paraquita Bay site, according to a “case summary” obtained by the Beacon in 2013. But after further delays, the company terminated its contracts on Sept. 19, 2008, the summary states. Global Water and government began an arbitration proceeding on March 18 of this year. The company claims that government owes it more than $22 mil- lion for alleged breach of contract.
The 2007 election brought yet another change of plans for solving the sewage problems. The VIP’s new solution called for the EE/LL and Road Town pipe collection systems to be installed through approximately $45 million in petty contracts, which would be overseen by Mr. Malone’s firm CBE. On Aug. 12, 2010, the company inked a new $1.9 million agreement with government to provide engineering, project management and con- tract management services to oversee the contractors.
Additionally, the plans called for the United Kingdom-based firm Biwater to play a major role. Julian Fraser, the new CW minister, inked a 16-year, no-bid con- tract with the company on Feb. 18, 2010 to improve the territory’s water supply and to provide two sewage treatment plants, each capable of serving 15,000 people. One plant, at Burt Point, is de- signed to handle Road Town’s sewage, while a planned Paraquita Bay plant — which government initially asked Global Water to build — will be built by 2015, Mr. Vanterpool has said. But both the government-led and Biwater- managed portions of the sewage solution have experienced delays.
CBE’s oversight of the petty contractors was supposed to be carried out over a two-year period, stretching to the project’s completion in 2011. Pipe laying began in 2010 and continued intermittently, but it stalled several times over the years because funds weren’t available to pay the petty contractors, officials have said. A $45 million loan from the Social Security Board, taken out in 2009, was supposed to finance $15 million in sewage works but was instead committed to over- runs on the new hospital, according to legislators.
CBE’s initial contract was supposed to have finished by 2012, but due to the government-caused funding delays, the firm was un- able to carry out its contract management duties because there were no contractors to manage, Mr. Malone said.
In February 2011, former CBE project engineer Samuel McIntosh told attendees at a public meeting in EE/LL that the project to modernise the sewage system in the area consists of four parts: force mains that carry the sewage to the treatment plant; the collection system of smaller pipes that link homes and businesses to the mains; pumps that help move the sewage uphill; and the Paraquita Bay plant. An “effluent line” to haul the treated waste from the Paraquita Bay plant along the Blackburne Highway and into the water past Brandywine Bay would also be needed, he said.
But before the collection sys- tem could be finalised and the
treatment plants built, administrations changed again. The Nov. 9, 2011 election brought the NDP back to power: After reviewing the Biwater arrangement, the new ad- ministration eventually decided largely to maintain the VIP’s approach to the Road Town and EE/LL sewage projects. Despite his earlier calls to cancel the Biwater contract, Mr. Vanterpool, the current CW minister, now said that government would honour its agreement with the company.
Initially, the new administration also continued to work with CBE, the project management firm — at least for a while. On March 20, 2013, Dr. Smith awarded the firm a $261,885.12 variance on its 2010 contract to retain CBE as construction manager until Nov. 30, 2013. That contract has since ended and the firm is no longer working on the project, though government has independently hired Mr. McIntosh, CBE’s former engineer, as a project manager. Mr. Malone, CBE’s owner, has mixed feelings about the latest developments.
“We could not finish the project management side of it because the funding to do the construction was never supplied by government,” he said. “We’re happy now that Minister Vanterpool has found the funds to do some of the construction works; we are un- happy that our time was allowed to quote, unquote expire.”
He added that in 2010, Cabinet had reached a decision to choose his firm to complete construction management and engineering for all 20 of the segments of the projects planned for EE/LL and Road Town. However, due to funding constraints, CBE was only contracted to do five segments at that time, he said.
During a May press conference, Mr. Vanterpool attributed the decision to hire Mr. McIntosh directly, bypassing CBE as project manager, to “cost reasons.”
In several recent public statements, Mr. Vanterpool has pledged that the treatment and collection aspects of the system will be complete by the end of 2015, allowing it to become operational.
In recent months he has also touted several temporary solutions the MCW has undertaken to give residents relief from sewage odours. In July 2012, the ministry inked a $163,000 con- tract with the local firm Biosafe to install new pumps in the Road Town station, alleviating much of the smell in the capital. In Green- land, where the slope of the land has meant the community bears the brunt of much of the EE/LL area’s raw sewage runoff, a temporary treatment plant was in- stalled in June to connect 60 residents to public sewers for the first time. Residents will be switched over to the Paraquita Bay plant when it is finished, and the temporary plant will be relocated to another community in need, Anthony McMaster, the permanent secretary in the MCW, said in a July interview.
To date, millions have been spent on the EE/LL and Road Town projects, but funding to finish the rest of the works now appears to be in place, with $6 million set aside for this year and $6 million for 2015, Mr. Vanterpool has said.
Richard Smith, Biwater’s VI project manager, declined to be interviewed for this article, stating that he was too busy with the project. But he has said previously that the firm is putting the final touches on its 2.3 million-gallon- per-day desalination plant at Paraquita Bay. After its completion, Biwater will focus on refurbishing the failed Road Town wastewater pumping station — government has already completed temporary repairs — and building the planned Paraquita Bay and Burt Point sewage treatment plants, Mr. Smith has said.
Assuming that the ongoing aspects of the sewage project are finished by 2015 as envisioned, the to-do list for the WSD remains daunting. While the temporary fixes and permanent Road Town and EE/LL works comprised much of the cost of the 2002 master plan’s estimated $141 million almost no progress has been made on the other projects in the plan However, Mr. McMaster, the MCW permanent secretary, sees cause for optimism.
“That may have been CBE’s figures,” he said of the $141 million cost. “I am not sure what the basis was that CBE used to factor that but what I can say to you is that what has been happening now is that we have been looking at different ways of executing these con- tracts that can bring down the cost.”
For instance, with fewer leaky pipes to fix, WSD personnel will be freed up to do more of the work in-house, he said. He added that soon engineers will begin deter- mining how to bring a sewer sys- tem to The Valley, Virgin Gorda.
According to the 2002 master plan, which suggested financial services revenue be prioritised to lay sewers across the territory, creating a system for VG can’t come soon enough.
“Prosperity has also provided the financial resources for the government to upgrade infra- structure throughout the territory potentially addressing needs in areas like The Valley before they too reach crisis levels,” the study stated. “With continued prosperity, the demand for wastewater services will continue to grow. In some areas decisions on whether or not to construct a wastewater system will have a major impact on whether development happens at all.”