A U.S. Virgin Islands Oil Refinery Had Yet Another Accident. Residents Are Demanding Answers

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St. Croix residents are demanding answers from a U.S. Virgin Islands oil refinery, and from the officials regulating it, in the wake of a series of recent accidents that they worry have exposed them to toxic chemicals and endangered their health.

Since restarting operations in February, the Limetree Bay oil refinery has experienced at least three accidents that have directly affected the neighborhoods surrounding it. That includes a chemical release that occurred during maintenance on the plant last week that produced a nauseating odor, forcing schools to shut down and send children home for the second time in less than a month.

The refinery, one of the largest in the United States, has been under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency since March for possible permit violations, and specifically for a February flaring incident that spewed a plume of steam and fuel residue into the air, covering more than 130 homes with specks of oil and contaminating the drinking water of more than 60 residents.

The agency ramped up its investigation in April, sending officials to St. Croix to look into another flaring incident that released large amounts of sulfuric gases into the air that month. Many residents remain confused over exactly what chemical they had been exposed to. Flaring occurs when a buildup of pressure triggers a safety valve to send chemicals to an incinerator that burns them off. The Virgin Islands government had initially said the April incident released hydrogen sulfide into nearby neighborhoods, while Limetree said the hydrogen sulfide was burned off in a flare, converting it into sulfur dioxide.

Both chemicals can be harmful—and even deadly—to humans in high concentrations, causing lung and eye irritation and complicating breathing.

The April investigation also found that Limetree was in violation of the Clean Air Act for failing to operate five sulfur dioxide monitors that surround its 1,500-acre property as required by two of its operating permits, though Limetree disputes those requirements. Days after EPA officials announced the Notice of Violation on May 3, Limetree said it would “voluntarily” begin operating the five monitors.

For many St. Croix residents, the Limetree saga has been too confusing to follow. And a group of nonprofits is now demanding clearer answers from the refinery and from those who are regulating it.

“Community concern is growing immensely,” said Jennifer Valiulis, executive director for the St. Croix Environmental Association. “We are receiving more and more calls each day from people that are frustrated with the lack of information and desperate for some relief from the air pollution that is making them sick.”

On Thursday, Valiulis’ group, along with the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, the Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism Foundation and the Virgin Islands Game Fishing Club, will host a town hall meeting to share the most up-to-date information and discuss the possible economic, environmental and health consequences from Limetree’s recent accidents.

Organizers want to help residents share their complaints and get answers from Virgin Island officials, whom many residents have found less than transparent about their dealings with Limetree. The refinery’s management, the EPA and Virgin Island government officials have all been invited to the meeting to answer questions.

One of the questions residents hope to get answered is what chemicals they have been exposed to over the last few months and what, exactly, is being done to prevent any future accidents from happening, said Frandelle Gerard, a St. Croix business leader and the executive director of the Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism Foundation.

“People are suffering, hospital admissions are up, and we don’t know how long this will continue,” she said.

Limetree didn’t respond to questions regarding community concerns over the accidents. But in a statement released last week, the company apologized “for any impact we may have caused the community,” including producing “light hydrocarbon odors.”

That statement garnered harsh and immediate backlash from some residents online, who said that the company continued to downplay its accidents and provided vague explanations days—sometimes weeks—after they happened.

“Have you noticed how Limetree Bay oil refinery spins their pollution problem by simply calling it an ‘odor’ or better yet, ‘light odor?’ said St. Croix resident Ryan Flegal in a May 6 Facebook thread.

“Do we need this on our island?” responded Shalima Edwards, another St. Croix resident. “I need to breathe fresh air!”

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Beecher Cotton, a resident of the Clifton Hill neighborhood just north of the refinery, said it took Limetree two weeks before the company informed him that his water was contaminated after the Feb. 4 flaring incident. That event contaminated at least 63 cisterns with oil. St. Croix residents have increasingly relied on the devices, which catch and store rainwater for their water needs, after the refinery leaked oil into the island’s aquifer for 30 years.

After finally receiving notice from Limetree that his water had been contaminated, Cotton said Limetree then tried to get him to sign a contract, offering to pay him $2,000 in exchange for waiving all his rights to hold the company liable for any bodily harm or property damage relating to the Feb. 4 incident.

Cotton didn’t sign the form and said he heard that at least one of his neighbor’s had been offered a similar deal. “It definitely doesn’t seem like they’re being very transparent,” he said.

For Olasee Davis, who grew up in the Virgin Islands and has lived in St. Croix for decades, the recent accidents remind him of the refinery’s past owners, Hovensa, who had a long history of polluting St. Croix’s environment and sold the plant to Limetree in 2015 after declaring bankruptcy.

The plant leaked more than 43 million gallons of oil into the island’s sole aquifer between 1982 and 2011. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency determined the refinery had violated its air pollution permits and slapped the company with a $5 million penalty—as well as a consent decree that ordered Hovensa to spend more than $700 million on pollution control upgrades and to pay for environmental improvement projects. 

Hovensa put roughly $4.9 million into an escrow account controlled by the Virgin Islands government to pay for the environmental projects, but $4.5 million of it remains unspent today, according to the EPA. When asked about the unspent money, a Virgin Islands government spokesman pointed to the roughly $318,000 spent on the territory’s cancer registry, which has been in development since 2017, but wouldn’t answer questions regarding the remaining millions that have sat untouched for a decade.

That’s one of the questions that could be addressed at Thursday’s meeting, Valiulis said.

So far, the EPA has declined to answer specific questions regarding Limetree’s recent accidents, saying its investigation is ongoing. But in a statement last week, the agency said that it takes the community complaints “very seriously.” The agency also said it was sending additional monitoring equipment to St. Croix so it can better understand what pollutants the refinery has been emitting into the air.

“If EPA makes a determination that the facility’s operations present an imminent risk to people’s health, consistent with its legal authorities, it will take appropriate action to safeguard public safety,” the agency said.

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