After surveying St. Croix residents, a group is calling for the launch of a criminal investigation into reported Limetree Bay Refinery incidents.
The group, which includes representatives from the St. Croix Environmental Association, CHANT, VI Good Food Coalition and the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, said in a press release that its survey “documented extensive environmental and health impacts on the island of St. Croix from the troubled restart of the Limetree.”
David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, who is also a professor at Bennington College in Vermont, said at a press conference Wednesday, “Impacts were severe in predominantly low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods downwind of the refinery. Despite multiple calls to the refinery and government agencies requesting assistance, many households in these neighborhoods are still waiting for help months after their cisterns were contaminated, their gardens fouled, and their health impaired.”
Jennifer Valiulis, executive director, St. Croix Environmental Association, said at the press conference broadcast on Zoom that health emergencies for hundreds of residents had been downplayed. She said she learned from the survey that many residents were still suffering from the consequences of incidents where Limetree is believed to have released toxic emissions. She said she, like many residents during incidents this year, had woken up to the smell of fumes and was terrified.
She mentioned that she hoped the refinery would not be released from responsibility for damages it might have caused residents through its filing for bankruptcy on Monday.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said Tuesday, “The news of Limetree Bay Refinery filing for bankruptcy is disheartening for the residents and families who rely on the income and employment from the refinery.”
His office did not respond to an email request from the Source asking for a comment on the call for an investigation of Limetree.
In his Tuesday statement Bryan said, “While there were some incidents during the restart process that raised concern with our local Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the (U.S) Environmental Protection Agency, our administration remained hopeful that Limetree Bay Refinery would be able to rectify those issues and begin refinery operations in a manner that protected the health and safety of St. Croix residents.”
Talking about the survey, Valiulis said, “Some of the most disheartening conversations were with people who had lost faith that anyone was listening to them or that anyone was going to help. They were still suffering frightening health effects or living with contaminated cisterns, yet the government seemed to care more about keeping the refinery open than the health, safety, and even the lives of the community members that were affected by the refinery’s operations.”
Frandelle Gerard, executive director of Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, said “The people of St. Croix are owed a great debt accruing from the historical operations of petrochemical plants on our island. The environmental injustices suffered by our community must be addressed and repaired. Limetree must live up to its commitment to St. Croix by acknowledging and mending the widespread environmental damage and health impacts caused by incidents at the refinery. And the Biden Administration should showcase its commitment to environmental justice by working to repair the deep wounds on St. Croix.”
A press release from the group said, “We are calling on EPA Administrator (Michael) Regan to launch a comprehensive criminal and civil investigation into Limetree. This must include efforts to clearly explain to residents of St. Croix what went wrong at Limetree, how those operational failures were allowed to continue from January to May, what chemicals were likely released during that period, and what the likely health and environmental impacts of those toxic releases might be. There is a tremendous amount of false information about Limetree circulating on St. Croix. It is vital that the public know the truth about what happened.”
Besides the investigation, the group is asking the site be added to the federal Superfund list.
The 26-question survey gathered information from residents from June 17 to July 11. It generated 681 responses from neighborhoods west and north of the refinery. It asked residents about the frequency of smells, flares, and explosions from the refinery alongside how often they found oil in their cisterns and gardens. As for health impacts, the survey asked residents about how often they experienced trouble breathing, eye irritation, skin rashes, headaches, nausea, and vomiting that they associate with refinery emissions.
In response to questions from the Source Wednesday, Bond said, “While we have no means of independently verifying what people tell us, I will note that the dates provided for the vast majority of reported impacts correlate to known emissions episodes at Limetree. And many health impacts are consistent across neighborhoods. We have no reason to doubt the evidence provided by people. And due to the egregious lapse of environmental monitoring, the people are the only remaining repository of what happened.”
As for a comparison of Hovensa and Limetree, Bond responded, “Hovensa was far from perfect, but many respondents (including a handful of current workers at Limetree) made it clear the current environmental negligence of Limetree is unprecedented. With catastrophic results for residents and workers.”
Bond said he has worked on environmental research issues before in the Virgin Islands. As for the motivation behind this survey, he said, “Talking with folks on St Croix this past spring, it becomes clear that a major environmental injustice was unfolding and that no one was investigating it. Joining with Frandelle, Somner, and Jennifer, we all decided to try to lift and amplify the truth that impacted communities already knew: unchecked emissions assaulted the health and homes of St Croix residents.”
At the press conference, the question was raised about how the refinery site could be designated a Superfund site. Sommer Sibilly, executive director, VI Good Foods Coalition, said the governor and V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett would have to request to be listed. She said if such a designation were made, federal resources would be more readily available.
Monday, the U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint in V.I. District Court on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleging that the St. Croix refinery presents “an imminent and substantial danger to public health and the environment.”
Limetree was ordered by the EPA to shut down for 60 days on May 12 and undertake corrective measures after multiple major incidents resulted in significant air pollutants and oil releases, including a large accidental flare that sprayed oil over some 137 homes.
On June 21, Limetree announced that it was closing indefinitely due to “severe financial constraints.”
Bond said the survey also uncovered three deaths that friends and family members ascribe to toxic emissions from the refinery. In one case a worker reportedly had a heart attack after inhaling noxious fumes.
The group will host a virtual community listening session on Thursday, July 15, at 6 p.m. This will be an opportunity for community members to discuss the survey results and share their own experiences. To register follow this link.
More information on the results of the survey can be found at: www.bennington.edu/Limetree.
“While many may want to politicize this issue, this work is about people. So many of us were negatively affected: women, children, and families and, of course, the farmers, fishers, and ranchers. These people matter, and it is my hope that this data is used to elevate their stories and also address their immediate needs,” said Sibilly.
The press release Wednesday said, “In West End neighborhoods, hundreds of residents described noxious odors that left them gasping for breath or stricken with debilitating headaches on a daily basis in April and May. In Kingshill neighborhoods, hundreds of residents described low-lying chemical clouds that invaded their homes or incomplete flaring that splattered petrochemicals on their cars, cisterns, and gardens repeatedly in February, April, and May.”
It went on to say, “Over 100 households across the West End reported emissions that injured their gardens. After acute emissions episodes, some reported their vegetables and fruit trees shriveled up, impacts that are consistent with deadly levels of sulfur dioxide gas. Many residents downwind of Limetree described nightly emissions so bad they woke everyone in the household, sometimes with sudden nausea and vomiting and sometimes with the terror of being unable to breathe.”