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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, December 9, 2022
HomeCommentaryOpinion: Refining Reality - What Really Happened Last Year

Opinion: Refining Reality – What Really Happened Last Year

The refinery, as seen from a residential community, has impacted the island in many ways over the years. (Source photo by Linda Morland)

What’s that famous definition of insanity? Repeating the same failure over and over again with the expectation of different results.

Around the Government House, earnest talk of rebooting the refinery echoes through the halls once again, promising to magically wave away everything that ails the Virgin Islands. Such wishful thinking ascends to stupendous heights by simply ignoring the disastrous reality of last year.

Governor Bryan refuses any pursuit of environmental justice until the refinery can be profitably restarted. The Houston bankruptcy court placed damaged Crucian lives at the very bottom of debts considered worthy of recognition. New investors describe months of toxic emissions at the refinery as a mere “incident.” And residents who lived the nightmare have not been included in official discussions about what to do with the refinery. All conspire against the memory of what really happened.

Moreover, a full year later, no government agency has investigated injuries to residents caused by uncontrolled refinery emissions in early 2021.

Breakdowns within refinery operations are coming into clearer view. EPA, OSHA, and DOJ investigations uncovered slipshod equipment, cascading mistakes, woefully absent safeguards, and brazen corporate deceit that turned a $4 billion dollar investment into a world-class boondoggle.

(Nor has dysfunction at the refinery concluded with its shutdown, as recent news of a smoldering petroleum coke pile demonstrates.)

But the very real injuries such operational failures inflicted on nearby neighborhoods remains frustratingly out of focus. The refinery gate marks the outer limit of official curiosity into what went wrong.

How can elected officials in the Virgin Islands consider signing off on another rushed restart of the refinery without a firm grasp of how the previous restart marred and maimed residents across St. Croix?

While there are gaps in our understanding of how bad it was, we do know something. And perhaps it might be worth reminding those elected leaders tasked with reviewing new plans to restart the refinery what happened last time around.

Last summer, the four of us teamed up to gather information from impacted communities themselves. In the absence of an official investigation, we worked to lift up and amplify the rich insight of frontline neighborhoods.

 Our community survey uncovered extensive injuries to health and homes in every neighborhood downwind of the refinery, and three untimely deaths from respiratory distress that families attribute to refinery emissions.

Roughly 20,000 people live downwind of the refinery on St. Croix, and for many of them last year’s restart bordered on the nightmarish. Emissions were so thick they appeared as a fog invading daycare centers and homes. Children fell out of bed in the dead of night, gasping for breath. Individuals, in voices still raspy from the pain, tried to describe the night the air burned their throats and lungs. Entire neighborhoods recounting the day when everyone started vomiting uncontrollably. Workers at the pier recalled a cloud that looked like gasoline vapors shimmering in the tropical air, a thing of curious beauty until the asphyxiation took hold.

While the resulting picture of suffering is far from comprehensive, it is remarkably consistent.

Accounts from the community confirm what official investigations now uncover. The dates recalled by residents and symptoms they suffered align perfectly with what toxic chemicals federal agencies have determined were released by the refinery and when. Taking impacted residents seriously gives new definition to the severity of what went wrong: catastrophic operational failures at the refinery came distressingly close to a mass casualty event on St. Croix.

A faulty flare was effectively aerosolizing crude oil into thick clouds of petroleum that drifted over the island. As the EPA later reported, these oily mists that could have erupted into “flaming rain” in the frontline neighborhoods around the refinery. While such an incident did not occur, the EPA investigation explained that clouds of oil droplets can ignite and “rain down while on fire in the refinery and nearby neighborhoods,” potentially introducing catastrophic firestorms.

While raining fire may have been averted, petrochemical downpours became a frequent occurrence. On an island where roughly half the population gets its drinking water from rain catchment systems, toxic emissions must be recognized as a drinking water crisis. Court filings suggest at least 1,200 homes were impacted by this hellish precipitation. A full year after being contaminated, many poisoned cisterns are still waiting to be properly cleaned.

Asphyxiating emissions also became shockingly routine last spring. As Limetree later admitted to the EPA, hydrogen sulfide emissions routinely exceeded the operating threshold of 162 parts per million (ppm), often by orders of magnitude. In late April, hydrogen sulfide levels skyrocketed to 91,649 ppm. Anything over 100 ppm is “immediately dangerous to the life or health of workers,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). ATSRD notes that “the respiratory tract and nervous system are the most sensitive targets of hydrogen sulfide toxicity” and that “just a few breaths of air containing high levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause death.”

Limetree Refinery has also acknowledged releasing deadly levels of sulfur dioxide during the early months of 2021. Subsequent EPA models determined those releases of sulfur dioxide emissions likely posed an “imminent and substantial danger” to public health on St. Croix. Releases of sulfur dioxide, the EPA wrote in its report on Limetree, “is considered immediately dangerous to life and health.” As ATSDR summarizes, “short-term exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide can be life-threatening,” and low-level exposures have been linked to a host of debilitating and lasting respiratory issues. We don’t have exact figures for the sulfur dioxide released because Limetree declined to operate five SO2 monitors in open defiance of its operating permits (HOVENSA had previously operated all five).

Refinery emissions also included benzene, a known carcinogen. As Limetree disclosed to EPA long after the fact, thick clouds of benzene were detected drifting into frontline neighborhoods at concentrations three times the level that should spur immediate corrective action. Exposure to benzene can cause immediate dizziness, headaches, and neurological impairment. Even at low-levels, benzene is strongly linked to a number of serious health issues, including a compromised immune system, blood disorders, miscarriages and birth defects, and leukemia. Limetree claimed benzene was only released during the emergency shutdown. Finding this an excuse that was “poorly reasoned,” “speculative,” and “lacks evidentiary support,” EPA reminded Limetree that its own monitoring of benzene told a different story: “The most severe impacts occurred while the refinery was operating.

Nor were dangers only distributed outward. In the four months the refinery was operating, OSHA issued 20 serious violations of workplace safety at Limetree. OSHA defines a serious violation as a workplace hazard that “could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm.”

Such murderous exceedances did not go unnoticed. As Limetree Refinery executives watched emissions spike well beyond levels considered deadly, residents called the refinery with complaints of debilitating headaches, severe vomiting, neurological impairments, and gardens shriveling up (injuries consistent with perilous levels of emissions). For months on end. With alarming ease, Limetree executives lied to the public and issued assurances that all emissions were “far below the level normally considered dangerous to health.”

In clear view of the environmental disaster underway, refinery executives willingly sacrificed the public health of St. Croix in an ill-fated attempt to safeguard profits for distant investors. And lied about it. Repeatedly. How many of those very same Limetree managers and engineers are now helping West Indies Petroleum/Port Hamilton Refining prepare the facility for another rushed restart?

The results from our survey were clear. Crucians do not trust the refinery, nor do they think the facility should be allowed to restart until the refinery has installed state of the art monitoring systems for emissions, until EPA has a full-time staff member onsite at the refinery, and until delayed assistance has been made available to everyone previously impacted.

At townhall meetings last summer, Crucians also made it clear that designating the refinery a Superfund site may be the best way forward. Beyond granting official recognition to what frontline neighborhoods have long known, such designation would also provide long-term and good paying jobs, additional resources for impacted communities, stronger legal authority to compel guilty parties to start cleaning up their mess, and a process for the community to design a roadmap for building a cleaner and healthier St. Croix.

The horror of last year is not easily forgotten by those who lived it. As we noted with the release of our survey results, the injustice inflicted on St. Croix by the refinery must be centered in any discussion of what to do next. Perhaps taking the last disastrous restart seriously will give credence to a new economy rooted in caring for the island, in healing the deep wounds left on the land, and in investing in the creativity of Crucians to begin the great transformation now needed.

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