An early-morning Hovensa oil overflow may have caused fumes that shuttered dozens of schools, classrooms and government offices Friday, refinery officials said, but nothing indicates school closings Tuesday through Thursday were due to oil fumes.
A total of 12 St. Croix public schools, 10 Head Start classrooms and many Human Services offices closed Friday when fumes affected areas including Frederiksted and much of the central part of the island, causing a strong odor, eye irritation and other symptoms.
"I did an assessment, I went to Kingshill (Head Start classroom) and for me, there was a strong odor in the area," said Assistant Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Causey-Gomez. "If you were in it for a long period of time, it could be affecting you. It was definitely affecting staff and my itty-bitty clients."
Human Services will assess the situation over the weekend to see whether the offices should open Monday, she said.
Only the three easternmost public schools remained open: Elena Christian Junior High, Juanita Gardine Elementary and Pearl B. Larsen Elementary. In a statement announcing the closures, St. Croix School Superintendent Gary Molloy advised parents to keep an eye on the news over the weekend for notices regarding whether schools will be open Monday.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, a total of 20 adult patients arrived and were treated at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital with complaints of sore throat, nausea, burning eyes, runny nose, vomiting and tightness in the chest, according to a statement from the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency. Seventeen were treated and sent home.
Earlier in the week, St. Croix Central High closed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, after students and staff began complaining of a foul chemical odor, burning eyes, itching and other symptoms. On Thursday, Charles H. Emanuel Elementary School and John H. Woodson Junior High School were also affected and closed Thursday.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. gave a radio address empathizing with St. Croix residents and saying Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes "has a good handle of what took place that caused the worst of the odors."
DeJongh said DPNR is looking at all the industrial sites on St. Croix’s southern shore to find the source of the problem and find a solution.
Hovensa issued a statement Friday afternoon saying Thursday’s heavy rains caused an overflow of oil and water inside the refinery.
"No product was released outside of the refinery; however the overflow caused odors both within the refinery and in surrounding areas," the statement said. A flare also happened as a result of the rains, but may or may not have contributed.
Hovensa said it took immediate actions to deal with the fumes. "There is no indication that last night’s events or the refinery’s operations earlier this week are related to odors detected in Central High School on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday," Hovensa officials said in the statement.
In an audio statement, Barnes said she and other officials met with Hovensa officials Friday morning, and were told the company isolated the problem and took corrective measures, including spraying foam. Barnes avoided saying Hovensa was definitely the source, but said that was their working hypothesis.
"We have received readings of detectable limits of sulfur dioxide at Central High School and those detectable limits along with a process of elimination has prompted us to feel Hovensa is the responsible party and that is why we are again aggressively pursuing investigating their operations to ascertain the source," Barnes said. "The main thing for us right now is to identify the source and to correct it and minimize any further public impact."
To that end, she has asked Hovensa for all the relevant operational logs, detailing how much fuel was being processed at given times and what was occurring inside the refinery’s systems that might have produced the odors and fumes, she said.
"But once again, the cause remains unknown," Barnes said.
The culprit, or one of them, may simply be the unusual weather, according to a source with very extensive experience and expertise in the business and industrial processes of oil refining. The refinery emits a certain amount of sulfur dioxide as a combustion product as part of the normal operation of the plant, the source said. The plant is designed so that under normal circumstances, the gases would go high into the air and disperse out to sea, according to the source. Asked whether this was a plausible explanation, Hovensa spokesman Steve Strahan said in an email it has not been established that sulfur dioxide is the source of recent odors, and declined to speculate.
"What I can tell you is that our refinery was operating normally when odors were reported at Central High School. Air monitoring to the refinery perimeter during that time did not find anything which would cause a detectable odor," he said.
The gases are warm and rise, then as they cool, they come back down, but normally they are not concentrated when the air is clear and the wind is blowing. But when it is heavily overcast and the wind shifts a little bit so it is coming in from the south, the gases can be trapped close to the ground over St. Croix, according to the source.
The V.I. Health Department has advised Frederiksted residents with compromised immune systems to stay indoors as much as possible, to close windows and use a fan, to keep medications nearby and to seek medical care if they feel ill as a result of the strong odor.
Health officials are in contact with its partner agency, the Poison Control Center of Jacksonville, Fla., as well as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Both agencies advise those who have previously experienced symptoms to try to avoid re-exposure.