A “Parting Gift to the People of St. Croix”: Environmental Disaster

Yes, I have (unapologetically) changed the title of the article. In “Donald Trump’s Parting Gift to the People of St. Croix: The Reopening of One of America’s Largest Oil Refineries,” Kristoffer Tigue (Inside Climate News) writes, “Environmentalists say Trump’s EPA bent rules to speed its restart. Now, they want President Biden to address what they call a textbook case of environmental injustice.” [Many thanks to Michael Connors for bringing this item to our attention.]

For years, Sonia Rivera and her husband have lived off the land, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, kale and other vegetables at their idyllic home in St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands located just east of Puerto Rico and roughly a thousand miles from the shores of Florida. The only foods they buy from the store, she said, are sugar and flour.

In early February, their paradise became a nightmare.

A flaring incident at the massive Limetree Bay oil refinery sent a plume of steam into the air and covered more than 130 houses in the Clifton Hill neighborhood, including the Rivera’s home and garden, with specks of oil.

When workers contracted by the refinery’s owners stopped by her house a couple of days later and sprayed chemical dispersants to help clean up the oil, Rivera said she had to dig up and throw out her whole plot, including more than 50 pounds of food.

“Literally black spots were all over everybody’s roofs,” Rivera said. “We’ve already spent over $600 trying to replace the dirt that was contaminated.”

It’s certainly not the first accident to occur at the 56-year-old facility, once one of the largest oil refineries in the world.

The refinery site is home to one of the biggest, and least known, oil spills in U.S. history. Its previous owners faced a multi-million dollar settlement for violating the Clean Air Act. And over the past year, as new ownership rushed to reopen the plant after nearly a decade, Limetree Bay has experienced a series of mishaps and delays, including multiple fires, foul odors strong enough to close schools and several unscheduled flares like the one that doused Rivera’s home and garden.

Now the plant stands as a prime example of what environmentalists see as the Trump administration’s unfettered and irresponsible deregulatory agenda and a penchant, late in President Trump’s term, for granting sweetheart deals to well-connected corporate interests. In Limetree’s case, the administration ignored decades of precedent in issuing new permits and expressed a willingness in emails to the refinery’s new owners to do almost anything they needed to restart it.

The plant’s renewed operations, in the context of the Paris climate accord, also prompted questions among climate activists about why a massive refinery needed to be reopened when global fossil fuel use must decline annually by 6 percent over the next decade if the planet is to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change by keeping warming within the limits set by the international agreement.

Limetree didn’t respond to questions regarding community concerns over environmental and  health threats posed by its operations, but promised on its website that the community’s safety and the island’s environment were “paramount” to its work.

Virgin Islands government officials touted the plant’s restart in February as a lifeline for the territory, still recovering from two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017—Irma and Maria—and crippled by a pandemic that devastated global tourism. Locals, like Rivera, worry what it will mean for them, and their tropical island, to once again live in the shadow of an oil refinery that has fouled St. Croix’s ecosystem throughout its existence.

Several green groups, including the St. Croix Environmental Association, are urging President Biden to revoke Limetree’s air pollution permit. They have filed an appeal with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board, calling the refinery’s ongoing operations a textbook case of environmental injustice.

Nearly 75 percent of the people living in the communities just north of the refinery are Black, almost 30 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino and over a quarter fall below the national poverty line, according to a recent EPA analysis. In 2016, St. Croix also had the highest number of reported cancer cases among the three islands, according to the territory’s cancer registry data.

For decades, government officials have known that polluting facilities, like oil refineries, are far more likely to exist in poor minority communities than affluent white ones. President Biden has made fighting climate change a top priority and pledged to elevate environmental justice to the top of his regulatory agenda to reverse decades of health disparities in minority neighborhoods.

The White House declined to comment on the demand to revoke Limetree’s permit. But officials now in top positions in the EPA have previously pointed to that permit as an example of the Trump administration’s abdication of the agency’s mission to protect nature and human health.

For locals, like Frandelle Gerard, a St. Croix business leader and the executive director of the Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism Foundation, the moment represents a chance for the new administration to back up its rhetoric.

“The people directly impacted, the people living closest to the refinery are poor, Black and brown,” Gerard said. “It’s a social justice, racial justice and environmental justice issue.”

A History of Spills, Explosions and Dodged Enforcement

When the ground shook on a sunny February afternoon in 2011, David Bond’s first thought was that a natural disaster had struck. “It felt like a volcanic eruption or earthquake,” he said. “I had no idea what it was.” A fuel line at the St. Croix oil refinery, operated by the company Hovensa at the time, had caught fire and exploded. The blast was heard from miles away and a pillar of black smoke rose from the island’s southern shore, churning across a blue tropical skyline.

Bond, an anthropology professor at Vermont’s Bennington College, was visiting St. Croix that day for research, and remembers workers in protective hazmat suits moving from house to house to clean the oil from resident’s cisterns—the rain catching systems commonly used on the island to collect drinking water. Hovensa, a joint venture between Hess Corporation and Petroleos de Venezuela, reported no injuries in the explosion. But the event added a further stain to a growing laundry list of high-profile accidents and violations at the facility in the years leading up to its closure.

Just weeks prior to the explosion, in January 2011, the EPA had found the refinery in such disrepair, that it ordered Hovensa in a consent decree to spend $700 million on new pollution control equipment that would help reduce the plant’s emissions by as much as 8,500 tons a year. The facility had been emitting too much nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds—or VOCs—and benzene, all of which can contribute to significant environmental and human health harm, such as increased risk of lung disease and cancer, the agency said. [. . .]

For full article, see https://insideclimatenews.org/news/21032021/trump-st-croix-virgin-island-oil-refinery/

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