Proposed waste fees draw ire from St. Thomas business owners


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ST. THOMAS - Local business owners are outraged by the details of how the V.I. Waste Management Authority intends to begin paying off its incurred and increasing cost of disposing of illegally dumped waste.

"You're going to tax us out of business," said Tom Brunt, CEO of MSI Building Supplies and a representative for the local Chamber of Commerce during a public hearing Thursday.

The public hearing at the Windward Passage Hotel on St. Thomas was the second of three public hearings regarding the imposition of a "special waste fee," as Waste Management officials are calling it.

The fee would not necessarily cover the cost of disposing of special waste products, but instead would cover the cost of educating the community about illegal dumping and the enforcement needed to prevent it, according to Waste Management Executive Director May Adams Cornwall.

In turn, the Waste Management Authority hopes to curb some of the costs that it has incurred in taking care of "millions and millions" of dollars worth of illegally disposed waste, whether it was left at dump sites or at places that are not at all associated with waste. The waste - which could include auto parts, computer parts, light bulbs, and many other components that could be toxic to the environment if unregulated and put into a regular waste site - must be shipped off-island, Cornwall said.

"They cannot be disposed of in the territory, at all. They must go," she said.

Still, the collected fees will not go towards disposal costs, Cornwall said.

Instead, the collected fees will go towards sending Waste Management employees to schools, businesses and community events to educate people about the need to dispose of special waste appropriately, Waste Management spokeswoman Stella Saunders said. The fees also will go toward enforcement, such as having more monitors at dump sites on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, according to Saunders.

The fees, which are expected to total about $1.2 million annually for the Waste Management Authority, will be collected when products are imported, which business owners said is going to be detrimental to their success, as it will force them to hike their prices higher than their competitors, especially those online.

Business owners - who sell everything from auto parts, building supplies and home appliances - will be taking on an unfair burden, as will their customers, they said.

"Every time that there is something to be done, you turn to the businesses," said Julian Industrious, owner of Industrious Auto Parts. He said he has taken it upon himself for years to have his customers' auto parts shipped back to the states to the manufacturers in order to avoid throwing them away on-island.

Many of the dozen or so business owners who attended the public hearing said they had special contracts or partnerships to ensure that their products also are appropriately disposed of. Many felt that they are paying for the bad deeds of others, though they are the ones who are in compliance.

Enrique Rodriguez, owner of Rodriguez Auto Parts, said his was the first business and the first non-government site certified by the federal government to dispose of tires.

Rodriguez said he is concerned about charging his customers a "special waste fee" on top of a disposal fee - which he uses to organize the disposal of his customers' auto parts. The new policy could even encourage further illegal dumping, he said.

Already, 20 percent of Rodriguez's customers choose not to pay the $6 disposal fee that he charges per tire and instead likely dispose of it elsewhere, illegally, he said.

Under the new special waste fee, Rodriguez said he will have to charge another $6 per tire, because he still will have to dispose of the tire, even after paying the "import tax" - as the business owners called the special waste fee.

"It doesn't make any sense," he said, noting that it would be easier to attach the fee to other fees incurred at the V.I. Motor Vehicles Department.

Additionally, the audience questioned the Waste Management Authority officials about whether the government would pay the same fees, as well as those who shipped products in trying to avoid the fees that they might take on if purchasing from local businesses.

Theoretically, government entities will pay, Cornwall said, noting that the local government is not always known for paying its dues in a timely manner.

Cornwall took in all of the suggestions from the business owners, as well as the dozen or so other attendees, some of whom were there to learn about how the fees would affect consumers. Others were there as Waste Management employees, and others as environmental activists.

The environmental effects of the "special waste" accumulating within the territory eventually could be detrimental, according to Cornwall. Many of the products that they are concerned about contain metals and chemicals that could harm human, as well as local animals, including those in the ocean, she said.

"Both of our landfills are right at the ocean," Cornwall said, explaining that neither landfill had been properly built and did not include a lining that normally would protect the soil and water from toxins that seep into the surroundings if left exposed long enough.

"It is just a cost that all of us will have to bear," Cornwall said.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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