Last Thursday, on the day of Hovensa’s most recent airborne oil release, three residents of neighborhoods hit by the spray began a class-action suit against the refinery, court documents show.
Colliani and Colianni, a large, long-established area law firm with offices on all three major islands, filed the suit on behalf of everyone directly affected by the refinery’s Dec. 9 release. Anyone whose house or yard was contaminated in the Dec. 9 release could sign on, for a potential class of hundreds of plaintifs.
But as of Tuesday afternoon, just three plaintiffs were listed on the court documents: Lizette Cruz, Herminio Torres Jr. and Melinda Ventura.
According to the complaint filed in V.I. Superior Court, Ventura “was exposed to hydrocarbons while inside her home and immediately became sick.” Allegedly, Torres was also exposed at home; while Cruz was exposed at work.
The complaint alleges that Hovensa’s release of “toxic fumes” was negligent; that it constitutes legal trespass because property owners did not consent to the contamination. The suit further states the contamination was “intentional, knowing, deliberate and done with reckless disregard for the harmful or offensive contact such exposure would foreseeably cause,” and falls within the legal concept of battery because it constituted an “unconsented, harmful or offensive contact.”
The suit also argues the oil release created both a public and private nuisance that interfered with the rights of tenants and owners to quiet enjoyment of their property.
The complaint asks the court to enjoin Hovensa to clean up its operations to prevent more such releases. It asks for real damages, attorneys fees, court costs and costs of cleanup. It also claims “Hovensa’s actions were willful, wanton and malicious, justifying an award of punitive damages.”
Since mid-September, there have been three releases of partially refined oil into the air and a fourth incident in which potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide gas was released.
But Torres and others who live near the refinery have been raising concerns about environmental quality near the refinery for a number of months before the recent spate of mishaps.
"The fumes have been unbearable for the Profit community," Torres said to the V.I. Legislature in August.
Hovensa has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. Calls to Collianni and Collianni for comment on the suit were not returned by press time Tuesday.