The Limetree Bay Refinery on St. Croix presents “an imminent and substantial danger to public health and the environment,” the U.S. Justice Department alleges in a complaint filed Monday in V.I. District Court.
The Justice Department complaint against Limetree Bay Terminals LLC and Limetree Bay Refining LLC comes as the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas.
In a separate announcement, the EPA said it will temporarily suspend operation of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide monitors at the St. Croix refinery effective Tuesday.
“EPA’s monitors were set up to measure sulfur dioxide (SO2) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) emissions from the facility. These monitors have been operating since May 14, 2021, to measure SO2 and H2S after a series of incidents at the refinery that endangered the health and welfare of nearby communities,” John Senn, Public Affairs specialist with the EPA New York City Regional Office, said in an email Monday evening.
“Limetree Bay committed in a July 12, 2021, binding agreement submitted in federal court that it will not initiate hydrocarbon purging activities without EPA’s prior approval. The company has also agreed to conduct air monitoring during those hydrocarbon purging activities. EPA also plans to conduct some of its own monitoring at the beginning of that hydrocarbon purging process to confirm that Limetree Bay’s monitoring is working properly,” said Senn, who said more information is available on the EPA’s website.
In a stipulation filed simultaneously with the Justice Department complaint acknowledging that the refinery is not currently operating and that Limetree Bay does not intend to restart the refinery presently, Limetree Bay has agreed to:
– Complete all corrective measures that are necessary to eliminate any imminent and substantial endangerment to public health or welfare or the environment posed by the refinery or refinery process units before the refinery or any refinery process unit restarts
– Notify the United States and the court no fewer than 90 days before restarting the refinery or any refinery process unit;
– Install hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and sulfur dioxide (S02) monitors at nine monitoring sites prior to restart of the refinery or any refinery process unit;
– Submit a plan for EPA approval to purge hydrocarbons from refinery process units and other equipment at the refinery as part of the process of indefinite shutdown. The hydrocarbon purging plan will include the operation of ambient air monitoring.
“Today’s action shows the Department of Justice’s commitment to enforcing the Clean Air Act and protecting American communities from harmful air pollution,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Jean E. Williams of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“EPA is committed to ensuring that Limetree Bay’s activities and operations comply with laws that protect public health,” said acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan. “Today’s action and stipulation further strengthen our work to protect communities near this refinery by securing a binding commitment from the company that any restart of operations or initiation of long-term shutdown activities, such as purging gases, must receive EPA’s prior approval. These actions advance EPA’s commitment to environmental justice and to protect clean air for those living in vulnerable and overburdened communities.”
Since restarting in February after being shuttered in 2012 by former owner Hovensa, the refinery experienced multiple major incidents that resulted in significant air pollutant and oil releases, including a large accidental flare that sprayed oil over some 137 homes in May, the Justice Department noted in its statement. Many residents in the surrounding St. Croix community have reported becoming sickened by some of the releases, it said.
Community activists with Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, the St. Croix Environmental Association, and the V.I. Good Food Coalition joined with David Bond, a professor of anthropology at Bennington College in Vermont who has done extensive research on the refinery, to survey residents about the health impacts of Limetree.
The results of their survey, which ended on Friday, are expected soon, but preliminary findings revealed an array of issues. These include stories of children falling out of bed in the dead of night, choking and unable to breathe; parents who smelled petrochemicals and, thinking they left the stove on, stood up only to pass out and fall flat on the floor; people debilitated by fumes so thick they appeared as a fog inside their homes; workers unable to continue working outdoors as petrochemical fumes overwhelmed their job site; and ER rooms so full of people sickened by emissions that the wait for medical assistance stretched into the next day.
The incidents led the EPA to order the refinery to shut down for 60 days on May 12 and undertake corrective measures. With Monday’s complaint by the Justice Department, the EPA order is automatically extended 14 days, though Limetree announced on June 21 that is it closing indefinitely due to “severe financial constraints.”