Eleven of the 14 senators in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas voted against ratifying the amendment to the Third Concession Agreement, which governs the relations between the government and Hovensa.
Voting no were Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Terrence “Positive” Nelson, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O'Reilly, Kenneth Gittens, Clifford Graham, Tregenza Roach, Myron Jackson, Diane Capehart, Shawn-Michael Malone, Janet Millin Young and Clarence Payne III.
Only Sens. Donald Cole, Judi Buckley and Sammuel Sanes voted yes on the proposal. Sen. Craig Barshinger was off island.
In a statement from Government House, deJongh expressed disappointment and said he will now take action to enforce the terms of the existing Concession Agreement.
Wednesday's vote came at the end of a daylong session in which tempers sometimes flared, where temperatures rose while the air conditioning was being repaired, while protesters stood outside drumming and chanting – and one senator sang. Honestly.
Nelson, who had used almost all his time during earlier discussions on other issues to lambast the Hovensa agreement, opened the debate on the amendment by likening the relationship with the oil company to the Gloria Gaynor song, "I Will Survive."
"Once I was alone, I was petrified," Nelson crooned. “Kept thinkin' I could never live without you by my side,” he continued.
But like the jilted woman in the song, Nelson said, the Virgin Islands are strong enough to tell Hovensa "Walk out that door."
Nelson ran through a litany of demands the company has made over the years and the environmental and health problems he laid at Hovensa's door, and he listed how much the territory has given. Then the company shut down with virtually no warning, Nelson said. The agreement is like a former husband who wants to negotiate the prenuptial after the marriage already ended.
"You did us wrong when we treated you right," he said, urging his fellow senators to say, "not just no, but hell no!"
"The simple fact is that we are facing a corporation that believes it can get away with what it wants because it has always gotten away with it. We have to stand up and really show some muscularity," she said.
The U.S. Virgin Islands, in general, and St. Croix specifically need to diversify their economies and not rely on a single large employer, O'Reilly said. The Hovensa property, once cleaned up, could be used for a variety of manufacturing uses, she said, even suggesting contacting the Department of Defense to see if it would like to build a Navy base.
Roach said the amendment wasn't a good deal, and said he wasn't moved by the prospect of long, expensive litigation.
"I am not afraid," he said. "The courts exists for us to avail ourselves if our rights are violated ... St. Croix needs jobs and it needs opportunity and we all need hope. But our hope need not be based on a fear of asserting our rights."
Hansen urged her colleagues not to forget 400 years of history.
"We ought to live as our ancestors did ... and not to humble ourselves towards money. We learned from our ancestors. We can survive without being pushed out of our own homes."
During a long afternoon and evening, Hansen provided the most heat.
"When they left they didn't give a damn how they destroyed the United States Virgin Islands. They didn't give a damn that our men and women have lost their homes because they no longer could make payments. They didn't give a damn," she said.
Senate President Malone picked through what he called flaws in the agreement, saying deJongh was overly optimistic in thinking someone could refurbish and restart the refinery for "a reasonable cost," saying he assumed it would require "major capital investments to open the shuttered and maintenance-challenged refinery."
Malone called the governor naive for not making sure the deferred payments in lieu of taxes would be guaranteed by Hess instead of left vulnerable if Hovensa filed for bankruptcy.
Buckley elicited "chupps" from the audience when she said that, despite her misgiving, she was going to vote in favor of the amendment.
"I am not afraid to be a lone voice and I don't succumb to threats," she said. “I don't operate by fear, but by faith and reality.”
The reality, she said, is that the local economy isn't getting better or even holding stable – the bad news keeps coming and nothing has changed. She pointed to a report from the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs that St. Croix has lost almost 5,000 businesses since the announcement that Hovensa would cease operating, and that the government is finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, with unfunded liability for the retirement system, huge debts by the hospital, and prices and energy costs rising. She likened the agreement to a divorce settlement.
"Neither party walks out completely happy, but we don't risk going to court with expensive attorneys and run the risk of a judge settling it. Hovensa needs to sell and leave the territory, as they now want to do, but they need this agreement signed by us," she said.
By the time it was his turn to speak, Sanes said the writing was already on the wall, it was already clear the measure would fail. He said he had been receiving text messages advising him to let it go, "to go with the flow." But he said that wasn't his way.
"I'm doing what my conscience tells me to do," he said, speaking about the people he sees every day on St. Croix with no jobs and no hope.
When Hovensa closed, he said, the skilled laborers, engineers and executives packed up and moved on to other oil jobs around the world.
"But thousands had to stay behind, hoping that something would happen ... What has happened? Not a thing ... Who's to blame? All of us are to blame,” Sanes said, later adding, “We can talk a good talk, but every two weeks we get a nice paycheck and our kids get benefits. What about the thousands who get nothing?"
Sanes challenged his colleagues, who were poised to defeat the measure, to come up with an up with an alternative.
"My question is, you guys got a plan B? I expect to hear that Plan B coming up soon," he said, promising, "If it's feasible, I'll work for it. But I really would like to hear what Plan B is. I hope it's not a lot of talk."
The Senate presented a "plan B" late in the meeting. After taking the vote, while some senators had already left, a resolution was rushed through urging Hovensa to find a buyer and sell the facility to someone who would operate it as a refinery, suggesting a series of conditions to the sale that the company has already rejected.
In his Government House statement, the governor expressed "great disappointment" in the vote.
DeJongh said he believed the Fourth Amendment Agreement was the best way to bridge the parties’ differences and was vastly superior to a lengthy and costly legal dispute he says threaten to delay the restart of the refinery and the economic recovery of St. Croix. Now that the Legislature has spoken, it appears that the dispute cannot be avoided, deJongh said.
At the same time, he also thanked the many members of the community who participated in the legislative process and who vocally supported the agreement.