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Jeep Liberty burned up by gas tank fire
Jeep Liberty torched by WAPA workers in Estate Richmond

CHRISTIANSTED – People with access to the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority grounds in Estate Richmond purposely torched equipment and transportation valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in protest over off-island workers being hired to do jobs local workers could do.

Sen. Novelle Francis, Jr. – a former Virgin Islands territorial police chief – reinforced the dangers of WAPA workers on edge during a meeting of the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee April 23 after a St. Thomas-St.John district senator first broached the subject on the floor of the Legislature in Frederiksted.

The Senate voted unanimously to send three of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s Cabinet nominations – Vivian Ebbesen-Fludd for Commissioner of Human Services, Mona Barnes for Director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA), and Catherine Hendry for Labor Commissioner to the full legislative body for confirmation.

But not before Francis related that WAPA workers were so disgruntled over Vitol Virgin Islands Corp. hiring people from Puerto Rico to do jobs local residents could do – that they would set a heavy equipment crane, bulldozer and a sport utility vehicle on fire in protest over the hires.

Last week Mapp denied several times having any knowledge about the off-island hires by Vitol, despite being asked point blank in a radio call-in show by a random telephone caller about the workers from Puerto Rico being hired at WAPA. The governor denied knowledge despite the fact that his own Department of Labor was conducting an investigation into the off-island hires at the very same time.

Hendry was the last person to testify before the committee – but she was the first executive branch official to confirm what St. Thomas Sen. Jean Forde first brought to the public’s attention – the news that Vitol had allegedly hired workers from Puerto Rico in contravention to Virgin Islands law.

Under questioning from Forde, Hendry admitted that Vitol, the company that is converting the Virgin Islands Water & Power Authority to use propane gas to generate electricity, is “under investigation” for allegedly hiring workers from Puerto Rico to do menial jobs such as laying tile.

Francis said it was his understanding that workers had damaged WAPA equipment – including “a bulldozer” – in protest over the off-island hires. To repair these bulldozers, potentially the use of Dozer Winch Parts, for example, could get them back to working order, following the damage.

“There is something brewing here that could go out of order,” Francis said. “I don’t support what they’re doing, but I understand it.”

A recent site visit to WAPA’s Estate Richmond power generating plant revealed that workers had in fact burned several pieces of heavy equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – including a crane, a bulldozer and a Jeep Liberty vehicle – in the protest over off-island hires by Vitol. If this were a piece of equipment from your business that was unfortunately burnt and destroyed during this protest, then it can effect your work massively. This is a time you may want to visit a city crane hire (from Australia) to help you in the mean time whilst saving for and finding a new crane and other pieces of machinery for your business.

Ebbesen-Fludd – was the first to testify before the committee at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room.

“I have also recognized that I was being prepared for the role even before I recognized it through my personal and professional experiences as a nurse who always had compassion for the less fortunate,” Ebbesen-Fludd said.

Many senators, including Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, noted that Ebbesen-Fludd’s background was primarily in the field of health and that she was even the Commissioner of Health under former Gov. John de Jongh for nearly two years, but the nominee said that health and human services go together – and that was why the department is called that in the United States government.

Under questioning from Francis, Ebbesen-Fludd said she did not know why people have had to wait two years on a waiting list and still have not been able to access the Energy CAP or “ECAP” program that distributes two propane tanks per year to those in financial need. But she said she has completed the necessary paperwork for a gas supply contract that will serve the program once it is approved by Property & Procurement.

“You are – in my opinion – commissioner material par excellance,” Sen. Neville James said of Ebbesen-Fludd.

Ebbesen-Fludd said her proposed salary is $117,000 annually, but that it only works out to $13.30 per hour if you consider that she is on call 24 hours per day and 365 days per year. That remark drew skepticism from Sen. Janette Millin Young, who said “that means you don’t sleep.”

“I really don’t, senator,” Ebbesen-Fludd replied.

The next testifier was Barnes, but before she began her testimony, 13-year-old Kerbassie Augustin, a student at Elena Christian Junior High School, spoke in support of the nominee.

“As a leader, she has what it takes to lead, just her mere presence in a room commands respect, let alone when she begins to speak,” Augustin said. “She is a professional’s professional and still is able to be true and down to earth when it’s all said and done.”

Barnes said her proposed salary is $97,000 and under questioning from senators said that she was willing to use some of her salary in order to fund a needed deputy director of operations for VITEMA.

“Within the next six months, I will develop and update VITEMA’s plans, including the Tsunami Incident Annex, the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters plan, V.I. Territorial Emergency Operations Plan (TEOP), which serves as the official playbook for how the territorial government coordinates as effective disaster response and recovery,” Barnes said. “The TEOP, which is the most crucial plan in our resource bank, has not been updated since 2010.”

Hendry, who was once the attorney on staff for Labor, is now tasked with heading up that department.

“My vision for the Virgin Islands Department of Labor (VIDOL) is a ‘roadmap of action’ and how Team VIDOL can pull out all the stops,” Hendry said. “We will do our best through partnerships and service executions that will allow us to develop a strong, skilled workforce, create jobs and enable businesses to thrive. These actions support the mission of the VIDOL which is ‘to administer a system of effective programs and services designed to develop, protect and maintain a viable workforce.”

Hendry said her proposed salary is $97,000 as was her predecessor’s. Under questioning from Senate President James, Hendry said 460 youngsters (280 on St. Croix and 180 on St. Thomas) had applied for the department’s summer work program.

“That requires money at a time when we’re struggling,” James said.

WAPA spokeswoman Jean Grieux has declined numerous phone calls seeking comment on this story and many others.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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