|By Daniel Shea, The Virgin Islands Daily
News, St. ThomasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 10, 2012--ST. CROIX -- Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the federal courthouse Thursday morning to pressure federal agencies the group believes is obstructing the William and Punch resort development from obtaining its Army Corps of Engineers permit.
The demonstrators decried the delays caused by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two divisions under the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The development is seen by many as a lifeline for St. Croix as it braces for the loss of some 2,000 jobs with the closure of the HOVENSA oil refinery and the potential of more dismissals of V.I. government employees.
Armed with signs, loudspeakers and artists' renderings of the project, the demonstrators -- organized by the citizens group We the People -- took to the sidewalk outside the federal complex that houses NOAA and the U.S. District Court.
"The main problem here is with the closing of HOVENSA and the financial crisis of the government, we need this," said Joseph Olmeda, who held up a sign that expressed a similar message. While there is discussion about constructing a large sports complex at the Paul E. Joseph stadium in Frederiksted, Olmeda pointed to the shortage of hotels on the western end of the island where William and Punch plans to build.
"Right now, we don't have enough hotel rooms if we develop the ballpark," he said. "So, if they come, where are they going to stay? This will give Frederiksted a boom."
According to William and Punch partner Chris Elliot, about 600 construction jobs would be created during the three-year construction period involved in the first phase. Those jobs will be needed once HOVENSA lays off most of its workers in late April, many demonstrators pointed out.
Omar Henry, a teacher at St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center, said he sees in the development an opportunity for young people to gain employment. He had a loud speaker attached to his truck that he used to play music and voice the group's concerns.
"The St. Croix economic condition is challenging, and with NOAA signing the one document that is holding up the William and Punch project, if they sign that document immediately, William and Punch will be able to break ground and begin construction," Henry said.
The transition will not be quite that quick.
William and Punch still has to secure financing for about $293 million needed to complete the first phase of construction, which includes a 378-room hotel, a marina, a casino, a restaurants and a golf course, Elliot said.
The group has had negotiations with two interested lenders and had been contacted by a third, according to Elliot.
"We're not moving on that because we're focused on this right now," Elliot said Thursday. "We need our permit to get financed."
Two federal agencies currently are holding up the permit, which most recently was filed in late 2009, according to William and Punch partner Kevin Rames. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already has signed off on the project, Elliot said. The Army Corps of Engineers cannot act on the permit until hearing from NOAA and EPA.
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries division has two groups that must review the project: the Special Habitat and Protected Species programs. Many of the demonstrators Thursday expressed frustration that the division has not acted on the permit.
A NOAA official said Thursday, however, that National Marine Fisheries began formal consultation on the permit on Dec. 13. From that date, the division has 135 days to complete the consultation.
Initial impressions from the EPA Puerto Rico office appeared favorable, according to Elliot. The demonstrators expressed concern, however, that EPA Region 2 may require an environmental impact study -- or EIS -- which typically takes about two years and costs about $250,000, Elliot said. The William and Punch application contains a biological assessment that already contains most of the information an EIS would gather, he said.
"I've heard through the grapevine that they want an EIS," Elliot said. "We don't have two years."
EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck sent a letter to the Army Corps in March 2011 recommending such a study. The project would relocate a road, construct a 70-slip inland marina that would require dredging and coastal beach jetties, and Enck wrote that "the activities described in the public notice do not comply with the Clean Water Act."
The act states that all practical alternatives must be considered, and alternatives "are presumed to be available, unless clearly demonstrated otherwise," Enck wrote.
"EPA remains concerned about potentially significant impacts to aquatic resources of national importance," Enck's letter reads.
"As it now stands, the developer's application lacks a suitable mitigation plan to compensate for unavoidable adverse impacts," said EPA spokesman John Martin. The EPA, however, is eager to work with the Army Corps and the developers "to ensure these concerns are resolved in a timely manner and development can begin," Martin said.
Rames said the circumstances have changed drastically with HOVENSA's closure and described EPA's requirements as "unnecessary and overbearing."
"It is substantially restricting and limiting economic development on St. Croix," he said. "These are critical times on St. Croix. They have to adjust their expectations."
- Contact Daniel Shea at 714-9127 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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