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Judge: Limetree Bay Terminals Must Buy Water for Residents Impacted by Refinery Flares

Limetree Bay Terminals on St. Croix in April 2020. (Source photo by Linda Morland)

Limetree Bay Terminals must buy water for at least some of the St. Croix residents whose cisterns and properties were contaminated by toxic flares in 2021 from its onetime sister refinery, District Court Judge Wilma Lewis ruled Friday.

Lewis issued a preliminary injunction against Limetree Bay Terminals, which now calls itself Ocean Point Terminals, in a 52-page opinion Friday night, determining it was equally responsible for the discharges by its onetime “sister company,” Limetree Bay Refining, as the two were both parties to the Clean Air Act permit governing the operation at the time of the incidents.

The court will hold a status conference on May 8 to schedule a hearing to determine who is entitled to safe water and how the program to provide it will be set up, according to Friday’s opinion.

Limetree/Ocean Point argued that the refinery alone was responsible for the discharges that began when production resumed at the long-shuttered plant in February 2021, and again in April and May that year. Limetree Bay Refining was subsequently shut down by the EPA that May and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two months later. It was sold to Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation at auction in December 2021.

The oil spray contained a cocktail of toxic hydrocarbons including petroleum coke, residual fuel oil, naphtha, intermediate distillates, and decant oil, according to reports at the time. According to Material Safety Data Sheets, exposure can cause irritation to the skin, dermatitis, irritation to the nose, throat, mouth, lungs, stomach, and intestines; nausea; vomiting; diarrhea; restlessness; and harm to the central nervous system.

As a result of the flare incidents, the refinery had established a water program for some 20,000 residents whose cisterns and homes were affected, but according to court records, it ended in September 2022 when the bankruptcy ended.

On Friday, Lewis ruled that the terminal operation is responsible to purchase water for those impacted by the discharges. Her ruling followed a first phase evidentiary hearing March 2-7, with supplemental briefs filed by both parties April 3.

“The Court agreed with the Plaintiffs that Limetree Bay Terminals was legally obligated to ensure the Refinery as a whole complied with the Clean Air Act. This is based on the fact that when Terminals purchased the Refinery in January 2016 from Hovensa, it acquired the asset of the Title V permit — which is essentially the Clean Air Act permit,” according to attorney Lee Rohn, who is representing the plaintiffs.

“DPNR then transferred that permit to Limetree Bay Terminals, and it was put in its name, which resulted in Limetree Bay Terminals assuming responsibility for the entire Refinery, including ‘not permitting the discharge from any source whatsoever of air contaminants that cause injury, nuisance, annoyance, or endanger the comfort, health, or safety of any person or the public,’” Rohn wrote in a press release regarding Friday’s ruling.

The suspension of the water program has proved a hardship for thousands of residents whose cisterns were impacted — not just those who are party to the four associated cases concerning the refinery operation — as they cannot afford to buy water, or have their cisterns cleaned, according to Rohn.

“The Court agreed that the evidence shows that there are people who cannot afford to purchase potable water or enough clean water and thus have to use the contaminated cistern water,” according to Rohn. “The Court found that the evidence shows that a meaningful proportion of the downwind population does not have the money needed to buy sufficient bottled water for their and their family’s needs. As such, the Court found that those who cannot afford to purchase sufficient water without trading off other basic necessities will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction.”

In her ruling, Lewis rejected the plaintiffs’ claims for remedial relief — namely the cleaning of their cisterns and property.

“Specifically, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have satisfied the four preliminary injunction factors with respect to those Plaintiffs and putative class members who cannot afford to purchase water without trading off other basic necessities, but that Plaintiffs have satisfied these factors with respect to this population only,” Lewis wrote.

“The Court also finds that preliminary injunctive relief for a water provision program is warranted, while such relief for the remediation of Plaintiffs’ cisterns and property is not.”

The Source reached out to Ocean Point Terminals for comment but had not received a reply at the time of publication.

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