Some 300 people attending a virtual town hall Thursday had three words for officials investigating the Limetree Bay refinery – “Shut it down!”
Friday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took them at their word, issuing an order pausing all operations at the site for 60 days.
Thursday’s virtual town hall, hosted by Engage VI, drew an animated online crowd galvanized by a coker fire on Wednesday that showered oil on neighbors for the second time in three months.
Less than four months ago the circa 1960s plant restarted operations under new ownership after an eight-year hiatus, but without a top-down modernization. Thursday’s town hall appeared to change the official narrative of the ongoing accidents as being part of normal startup pains.
Whether or not the refinery restarts and, if so, under what conditions, will be decided by the EPA.
‘This is not normal’
ChenziRa Davis-Kahina lent a powerful voice to the town hall as she expressed the pain of living with refinery upsets and unexplained health effects for the past 30 years.
“Why are they being able to operate without monitors? Why are our agencies meeting but not shutting down a refinery that’s killing people?” the west end resident demanded. “It has everything to do with lack of accountability.”
Two years ago Davis-Kahina was one of “a few that spoke up, even if we were ostracized, even if people thought we were crazy,” she said.
This time was different.
Organized by the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, representatives from the EPA and Natural Resources Defense Council, as well the V.I. Health Department, the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, had gathered for the sole purpose of answering a flood of resident questions and concerns like hers.
As recently as a May 7 press conference, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. asked Virgin Islanders for patience.
“This refinery has been down almost 10 years now, and as they put it back online, they are going to have their little troubles,” he said.
On Thursday, Walter Mugdan, the EPA’s acting regional administrator, admitted to the town hall attendees, “This is not how a normal refinery operates.”
Mugdan assured his listeners that since sending an emergency response team to St. Croix on April 30, Limetree is his office’s highest priority.
“We’ve got a team of over 40 people working on different elements of this matter. My boss Michael Regan, the head of the EPA, is also very, very focused on this. What our administrator said yesterday is that we’re going to take all appropriate action to make sure that when and if this refinery starts up again, it will be doing so in compliance and an appropriate way,” Mugdan said.
More inspections ahead
Limetree was noticed of a Clean Air Act violation on April 30 for failing to reinstate five sulfur dioxide monitors previously operated by Hovensa, a requirement the new owner inherited.
“That’s only the beginning,” Mugdan said. “We have a lot of concerns. The Clean Air Act is a very powerful law. It provides us with many enforcement tools, and they’re all on the table.”
The agency took some heat from questioners for allowing Limetree to restart without assuring it could safely do so in the first place.
“They should never have been allowed to be here,” Kahina said.
Elizabeth Neville, an environmental attorney with strong family ties to St. Croix, questioned the age of the facility, built in the 1950s by Leon Hess and never fully modernized, despite a federal reactivation policy that should have required it, she said.
Asked if the EPA would be inspecting Limetree’s equipment due to its age, Mugdan answered yes: “There will be multiple inspections. We already had two visits, and there will be very substantial inspections in the weeks and months to come.”
John Walke, a clean air attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, spoke in a prescient voice, considering the EPA’s action the next day.
“The law gives EPA authority to step in under the Clean Air Act to stop dangerous air pollution when there is ‘an imminent and substantial endangerment to health,’” Walke said. “What’s been happening on St. Croix is a textbook case of that endangerment.”
Friday’s 60-day pause order put the EPA on the side of Thursday’s gathering. The order exercises an emergency power to stop operations completely ‘unless and until,’ experts say it can be done safely.
Chemicals and sickness, not odors
In the months since the refinery resumed operation, residents’ complaints about emissions were often normalized as “smells” and “strange odors.”
Walke cut to the heart of the matter:
“What the island is experiencing is harmful air pollution from toxic chemical releases. It is not just odors,” he said.
Frandelle Gerard of CHANT, who moderated the town hall, shared excerpts from a chat she sat in on Wednesday.
“‘This stuff is toxic,’” Gerard quoted a Hannah’s Rest woman on the chat. “‘I now have rashes, and I am reporting my symptoms. But come on, this is crazy.’”
“‘I live in town. I have headaches and a raw throat,’” Gerard quoted another.
And another: “‘I have sensitive skin which is now showing rash patches on my face and neck area.’”
Said another: “’I am hyper-sensitive to everything, so it has been bothering me for three weeks. I canceled my lease due to the dust, and now this.’”
Since establishing a hotline on May 8, the EPA has received more than 300 calls from residents even before Wednesday’s oil spray, Mugdan said, with physical and medical symptoms as well as odors that are consistent with multiple chemical exposures.
Virgin Islands Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said her staff had logged about 218 reports since May 5, 70 percent of them from the west end of the island.
About 40 percent of the complaints described medical symptoms ranging from headaches, nausea, vomiting and eye irritation to difficulty breathing and skin rashes, Encarnacion said.
“We saw about nine individuals who visited our emergency room,” she said. “And as the winds shifted, you actually saw a difference in the number of complaints.”
Asked if the EPA has a methodology to determine if what residents are breathing can harm their health, Mugdan answered yes, eventually.
Once re-established, the community’s sulphur dioxide monitors will be able to measure compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards that set the allowable levels for harmful pollutants to protect human health, he said.
The agency could also require that hydrogen sulphide be monitored, he added. The EPA is currently installing both types of monitors and working with the V.I. health department and Centers for Disease Control to establish safe threshold levels, which, if exceeded, could trigger a VITEMA alert, he said.
A question of trust – and air monitoring equipment
The town hall concluded with a question for all the participants about trust going forward. Both Mugdan and DPNR Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol acknowledged the issue, which was palpable in the virtual room.
“We know that because of the history with this facility, it may take some time before there is trust,” Oriol said. “And I think that it’s going to be difficult, but we are committed to doing what is necessary to putting the things in place that restores that trust in the people.”
Previously the commissioner had acknowledged that until a week ago, when the unified command was established, his agency lacked the air quality monitoring equipment needed to protect the community. Nor had the refinery been independently monitored.
Walke counseled trust with verification.
“The EPA this week brought better air pollution monitoring equipment to St. Croix, and we should thank them. But EPA will not keep that equipment on the island forever,” he said.
“St. Croix needs sophisticated air pollution monitoring that can detect many more hazardous air pollutants from Limetree,” he concluded, “operated by experts who are going to tell you the truth.”
Environmental incidents can be reported and links to the latest articles and events can be found on the St. Croix Environmental Association Limetree resources page.