Although the refinery has declared testing and cleaning complete, some residents downwind of recent Hovensa airborne oil releases say their roofs and cisterns incorrectly tested negative for contamination and still need cleaning. As a result, residents are sending letters and holding meetings to get action.
“We aren’t out for money,” said St. Croix resident Hilda Francis at a town meeting Tuesday night at Sherm’s Place near Estate Strawberry Hill. “All we are looking for is to have our roofs and cisterns cleaned and filled with clean water,” Francis said.
Shermaine Craigwell of Strawberry Hill, who organized the town meeting along with Francis, said they had sent letters to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources asking for a response and that their ad hoc group – calling itself the Mid-Island Committee – would continue holding meetings, writing letters and advocating for action.
On Sept. 19, Hovensa sprayed a vapor cloud of oil into the atmosphere when a small line in a desulfurizing unit burst. Then, on Sept. 30, a mishap forced the refinery to flare-off a large amount of partially processed oil, some of which also flowed into a low-pressure elevated flare, where it sprayed out and was carried downwind over a number of neighborhoods. Residents of those neighborhoods were advised to disconnect their water cisterns and avoid using cistern water until their tanks could be tested.
Since that time, Hovensa sent crews to collect water samples, under the oversight of the departments of Health and Planning and Natural Resources. A total of 642 samples of cistern water were analyzed by an independent lab, according to Hovensa.
Information provided in October by José Font, EPA’s deputy director for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, EPA Region 2, shortly before the testing was complete, indicated at least 119 cisterns had indeterminate test results.
Hovensa, which has cleaned and refilled 30 cisterns that tested positive, had also set up several water-distribution sites during the cleanup, offering free drinking water for residents of affected neighborhoods. The company gave out more than 450,000 gallons of drinking water and issued more than 600 vouchers for car washes.
On Nov. 2, Hovensa declared testing and cleaning water cisterns complete,
“Test results from all cistern samples were well below the drinking-water guidelines of 10 milligrams per liter used by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR),” wrote a Hovensa spokesperson in a statement from the refinery. The registry is a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Health Commissioner Julia Sheen confirmed the registry found no public health threat from either oil-vapor discharge, or two recent sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide releases, which spurred complaints of a rotten-egg smell.
The release of hydrocarbon droplets is still under investigation by the Department of Health and the registry; and Sheen has said previously Health will update residents when results come in.
The 20 or so residents at the meeting Tuesday evening say the tests must be inaccurate because they can see and smell oil and sulfur.
“I’ve been having headaches from the fumes at night,” said Litha Hill of Estate Strawberry Hill. “I’ll smell that stuff, like the gas from the stove and think, it’s just Hovensa, but what if it isn’t and the stove is on, so I get up and check. In the mornings I’m nauseous and want to vomit. I have headaches and feel dizzy from the fumes.”
Hill said there were specks of oil all over her yard. “Even the clothespins on the line had little tiny spots all over them,” she said. She believes the oil is causing paint to fall off a metal gate to her yard. Hill said she called Hovensa, but was told the tests were negative, while her next-door neighbor’s tested positive.
“I asked if there was an angel protecting my roof and not my next-door neighbor,” she said. “I’m outraged. I want them to clean the roof, fill my cistern and paint my gate.”
"Ms." Christian, a resident of Sunny Acres on St. Croix, shared a similar story, saying Hovensa told her the cistern water tested negative, even though she says she could see oil on the water’s surface.
“I don’t drink or bathe in the cistern water now,” Christian said. “I only use it for toilet water.”
The evening meeting ended too late to get comment from Hovensa on the group’s claims and requests. However, another town meeting is scheduled Thursday at 6 p.m. at Sherm’s Place, just east of The Village Mall on the opposite side of Queen Mary Highway, across from the main entrance to Estate Ginger Thomas.
“If they want to come to Sherm’s Place Thursday, we are here and wiling to talk to them,” Craigwell said.
For more information about the Mid-Island Committee’s concerns and its meetings, call Craigwell at (340) 643-1204 or 773-7735 or email at email@example.com.