Months after an oil spray contaminated the roofs, cisterns and yards of downwind St. Croix neighbors, Limetree Bay refinery has conceded a small victory to thousands of affected residents – not to clean their cisterns, but to distribute clean water to more of them, according to an agreement awaiting approval by the Southern District of Texas bankruptcy court.
On May 12, a massive flaring incident at the refinery showered oil droplets over homes from Clifton Hill to Frederiksted and beyond; the second such incident in less than four months of operation. Limetree shut down indefinitely soon afterward and filed for Chapter 11 protection.
The oil spray contained a cocktail of toxic hydrocarbons including petroleum coke, residual fuel oil, naphtha, intermediate distillates, and decant oil. 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.
How much water will be distributed?
Most Virgin Islanders rely on cisterns collecting rainwater for bathing, cleaning and cooking. After an oil spray, the toxins settle and create a tacky substance on roofs and gutters. Over time, rainwater washes the contaminants through the piping and into a home’s cistern, where it sticks to the cistern walls. Humans are advised not to bathe in or drink such water.
As a stop-gap measure, Limetree has been providing bottled water to residents within a limited area at the rate of two cases per household, or about three gallons, a day.
The new distribution program would reach more households while reducing the amount each can receive, from 30 to 20 gallons per week.
Twenty gallons roughly equates in volume to a keg of beer or half a bathtub.
The agreement is expected to take effect in the coming week and will be announced on local radio stations.
Who can receive the water?
Limetree consented to make water available to communities in the Southcentral, Northcentral, Southwest and Frederiksted areas of St. Croix. They include, for example, Clifton Hill, Profit Hills, Kingshill, University of Virgin Islands Campus, Hannah’s Rest, Frederiksted, Estate Northside, Smithfield, Upper Bethlehem, Mars Hill, Estate Carlton, Golden Grove, Grove Place, Negro Bay, Williams Delight, Whim, Sandy Point, La Grange, and Prosperity.
The water will be available at no cost to residents who show a driver’s license, lease, utility bill, deed, or other proof of occupancy in one of the covered areas.
Expanded distribution locations and hours
The agreement stipulates that the Limetree Distribution Center opposite the refinery will offer water Monday through Saturday during expanded hours, from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Limetree also agreed to add two more distribution centers:
• One at Sunshine Mall, open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and
• One at Frederiksted Ball Park, open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
With $25 million in debtor-in-possession financing, Limetree hopes to pay off its creditors through a sale, either to an entity that will restart its refining operations or a liquidator who will sell off the equipment. The bidding closed Monday and the auction is scheduled for Friday.
Among the creditors are the thousands of Crucians who joined several class-action lawsuits claiming damages from the refinery’s oil sprays and toxic emissions, among them the cases known as Cotton, Shirley, Boynes and Charles.
On short debtor-in-possession rations, the expanded water distribution program is Limetree’s only remediation so far, said attorney Lee Rohn, who represents about 1,200 plaintiffs.
The monthly costs of the two additional distribution centers were capped at $180,000, so service at those sites will discontinue if expenses exceed that amount in any given month, the agreement states. Residents will be notified by social media if that happens.
What about cleaning the cisterns?
With its first oil spray in February, Limetree cleaned and refilled the cisterns of those who were affected. Following the May mishap, it sent claims adjusters to offer money for residents to take care of the cleanup themselves, in exchange for their waiver of claims for damages. Out of over 1,000 people who signed, fewer than 100 were paid, according to a hearing of one of the class actions in district court.
Phyllis Blackman signed such a waiver in exchange for $3,100. As it turned out, the estimates to clean her two cisterns and roof far exceeded that and she still hasn’t been paid, she said. A senior living on a fixed income, the Williams Delight resident, who’s not connected to municipal water, scraped together enough to clean and fill one cistern. The water distributions from Limetree have added to her supply, but, she said, “It’s not enough.”
On learning of the situation in July, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. intervened.
“It is standard practice that if you have been affected by an oil spill, the refinery fixes it,” Bryan said during a weekly press conference. “This is what I thought was happening. But it seems some residents have been asked to sign waivers. I made it clear to Limetree that once you have been affected, you don’t need to sign anything to be made whole.”
Limetree engaged a contractor to offer the promised cistern cleanout. But because of the refinery’s cash-poor situation, the service was short-lived.
Rohn said there is no plan to clean the roofs and cisterns. Even if a qualified buyer emerges at Friday’s auction, it will be some time before sale monies are available to pay the affected residents.
“My clients are calling on the governor for assistance to begin this much-needed remediation,” Rohn said.