For the third time since mid-September, the Hovensa oil refinery sprayed refining byproducts into the air over St. Croix Thursday, possibly sickening more than a dozen St. Croix residents, according to the V.I. Health Department.
Hovensa reported to the Health Department, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and Department of Planning and Natural Resources that at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday, prevailing winds carried steam containing a hydrocarbon mix northwest of the refinery. The hydrocarbon release lasted about eight minutes and was reported to have a strong foul odor.
Students at St. Croix Central High School were sent home early after some students complained of runny noses, vomiting, itchy eyes and sore throat.
“Sixteen people were taken to (Gov. Juan F.) Luis Hospital Thursday in the wake of the gaseous release and were treated and released while others remained for further observation,” Health Commissioner Julia Sheen said in a statement.
“We urge nearby residents to continue to take precautions, such as sheltering in place, and avoid areas where they experience respiratory or eye irritation, and seek medical attention, as necessary.”
According to the Health Department, Luis Hospital CEO Darice Plaskett said Thursday afternoon the 16 people treated included three adults, including a school monitor, a police officer assigned to the school and a 73-year-old nearby resident.
In a statement, VITEMA Acting Director Elton Lewis said the incident may or may not be related to the release and the students were released “as a precaution.”
Lewis said Hovensa’s initial self-assessment of the release found only minor impact on the refinery in a localized area near its coker plant, but no indication of any concentration of chemicals or hydrocarbons in surrounding neighborhoods or at Central High.
Details were still being gathered as of Thursday afternoon, but Hovensa reported to DPNR that the release was a low hydrocarbon consisting of “light thermocracked distillate, heavy coker thermocracked naphtha and hydrogen sulfide.” At low levels, hydrogen sulfide gas has a strong odor similar to rotten eggs.
Delegate Donna Christensen issued a statement Thursday afternoon expressing concern and encouraging anyone whose symptoms persist to get medical help and create a health record.
“Even though preliminary investigation of the event by the refinery has not yielded any alarming results, I am increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our residents and of the workers at the refinery,” said Christensen.
She said she contacted the Environmental Protection Agency immediately as a follow-up to a series of letters written to them over the last few months.
“I have asked EPA to convene a public meeting to advise the St. Croix community of agency’s remediation efforts and to deploy a team to actively engage in the data collection and monitoring effort as it relates to the contamination of air and water resources in adjoining communities.”
Christensen has also contacted the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health to see about compiling an environmental health profile of the Virgin Islands, she said.
“I would also like to urge residents to go to the emergency room, a clinic or their private physicians if their symptoms persist, so that a health record can be created for use in a federal response. If you don’t report your symptoms, we don’t have the evidence needed to obtain assistance,” she said.
The Department of Health plans to issue updates as more information becomes available. In the meantime, residents can also contact the USVI-Jacksonville Poison Control Center, toll-free at 1-800-222-1222.
This is the third oil release into the air above St. Croix since Sept. 19, when Hovensa sprayed a vapor cloud of oil into the atmosphere when a small line in a desulfurizing unit burst. The second incident occurred less than two weeks later, on Sept. 30, when 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.