Open Forum: Please Comment on Limetree’s Clean Air Act Permit Application

The former Hovensa refinery as it appeared in March 2019 as Limetree Bay Refining was working toward partially restarting oil refining operations. (Source file photo by Bill Kossler)
The former Hovensa refinery as it appeared in March 2019 as Limetree Bay Refining was working toward partially restarting oil refining operations. (Source file photo by Bill Kossler)
Elizabeth Leigh Neville
Elizabeth Leigh Neville

As you may or may not be aware, Limetree Bay Terminals and Limetree Bay Refinery (collectively “Limetree”), the now-owners of the shuttered oil refinery formerly operated by Hovensa, intend to begin refining crude oil on the site as soon as 2020. A key environmental permit is up for public comment on the EPA website, and I encourage you to take this opportunity to tell the federal government what matters to you by Monday, Nov. 25.

This facility used to be one of the ten largest oil refineries in the world. Its impacts on the island cannot be understated. It employed hundreds of people; it released over 43 million gallons of petroleum into St. Croix’s groundwater. (For context, the Exxon Valdez oil spill released approximately 11 million gallons.)

Yet, despite the refinery restart’s tremendous potential impacts to the health, environment and economy of the island community, there has generally been little public participation in the permitting processes. This is understandable, as Limetree began seeking permits for its offshore pipeline around November 2017, shortly after hurricanes Irma and Maria left much of the territory without basic necessities – let alone the electricity and practical bandwidth to contemplate what are often highly technical permit applications.

Until recently, this trend of limited participation has continued. This past August, only three members of the general public attended the hearing on Limetree’s Coastal Zone Management permit and consolidation.

However, between the well-attended community meeting hosted by the St. Croix Foundation on Nov. 6 and the audience of several dozen at the EPA public hearing on Nov. 10, it would seem that public participation is increasing. At the time of this writing, though, there is only one public comment posted to the applicable Regulations.gov page. I believe we should change this.

As someone whose family has lived on St. Croix for nearly 20 years and as an attorney with an environmental law practice, I have my own concerns about this permit and the refinery restart, generally.

I am concerned by the fact that a Plantwide Applicability Limit permit – which would set facility-wide pollution limits for the next 10 years – would remove public notice and participation mechanisms that would be available otherwise. Yes, “PAL” permits are efficient for the industry, but this efficiency comes at the cost of public engagement.

I am concerned that the EPA has proposed using historic levels of pollution from the Hovensa days (indeed, from the two years before Hovensa was fined millions of dollars for violating the Clean Air Act) as the basis for calculating many of the allowable levels of pollution in this permit. Longstanding EPA policy precedent and decades of EPA practice dictate that plants closed more than two years, like this one, should be regulated and permitted as a new pollution source, not under the looser rules for reactivation.

A ship moored at Limetree. (Government House photo)
A ship moored at Limetree. (Government House photo)

I am concerned that we do not have sufficient health research to fully evaluate the likely impacts of the facility. I am concerned that cancer rates are purported to have increased, becoming the leading cause of death in the territory, from 2003 – 2013 – a period including high-production times for the refinery. Correlation does not equate causation, of course, but I believe that this indicates a need for more information. I am also concerned about the link between many of the pollutants proposed to be emitted by the refinery restart and health conditions such as asthma.

I am concerned that, based on the information in the administrative record and pertinent agency websites, the EPA does not appear to have consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the National Marine Fisheries Service about the potential harm to endangered species from this permit’s activities, even though there are 22 federally-listed species that stand to be impacted by the refinery’s restart. The Environmental Assessment Report for the most recent Limetree CZM permit noted 14 sea turtle nests, including leatherback nests, on the beach near the refinery.

I have many other law- and science-based concerns with the refinery restart, generally; several of these are contained in the public comments that I drafted for the last CZM permit application on with the St. Croix Environmental Association and two nationwide organizations.

I believe in economic growth, and to be sustainable (practically and ecologically), I believe that economic growth must be conducted in a manner that is proactive and protective of public health, the environment and strictly in keeping with environmental law and policy.

These are my concerns and my beliefs, though; yours may be different. Whatever they are, I encourage you to share them with the EPA by Monday, Nov. 25. You can find the Regulations.gov docket online here.

This is a complex issue, and it is crucial that V.I. voices be heard. The federal government won’t know what matters to us unless we tell them.

Now, back to writing my own public comments …

Elizabeth Leigh Neville
Attorney at Law
The Neville Law Firm, LLC

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