As I watch the disaster spewing from St. Croix’s refinery, I am haunted by the memories of my brushes with the poisoned water from Tutu Wells – formally known as Tutu Wellfield, which eventually, but way too late, became a Superfund site.
The first memory is of a dear friend who died way before his time in his 50s from leukemia, most assuredly caused by the volatile chemicals that poisoned the groundwater in Anna’s Retreat, where he had been living and drinking from one of the toxic wells for several years.
John Lovatt, cameraman, cartoonist, sharp-witted satirist, and humorist who brought laughter and smiles to the faces of those who knew him, died slowly of leukemia after openly delighting in his access to fresh drinking water from a well on the property where he was living within the 108 acres where the lethal chemicals had leaked into the groundwater for many years before the area was declared a Superfund site.
EPA placed the site on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List in September 1995, four years after John left many in this community and elsewhere in mourning.
The history of the disaster – which lingers still and for decades has blocked – theoretically, at least – Virgin Islanders’ use of the freshwater from the East End aquifer has seemingly gotten lost in more current concerns, though it is still under active scrutiny by the EPA.
Fast-forward four years to August 1999, just eight months after the V.I. Source was launched. I received an anonymous tip that the Department of Education had been issued Notices of Violation in connection with the drinking water at Sibilly and James Monroe Elementary Schools (which were and are miles from each other on the North Side) due to the volatile organic chemicals found in the water – chemicals that were the same as those found in the Tutu groundwater.
The Source reportage at the time, which can be accessed below, was never able to offer any conclusions as to how those chemicals found their way into the drinking water that children were innocently sipping from the fountains in their schools.
Scapegoats were duly established, and politics ruled the day as officials scattered like the proverbial insects when the lights are turned on.
Coincidentally, it was the same year, 1999, that the Virgin Islands Central Cancer Registry was established by law in the territory. Given the diasporic nature of Virgin Islanders and the many, many roadblocks incurred as the registry attempted to collect meaningful data, we will never know how many of those elementary school children – who would be in their 20s and 30s now will meet or have met the same fate as my friend John Lovatt.
Meanwhile, there is nothing hidden about the dangerous emissions and conditions caused by the politics of trying to keep open a refinery that rains poisons down upon our people on a regular basis, not to mention our land and our groundwater.
Less than a year ago, the Washington Post published a report entitled
“A refinery rained oil on thousands of St. Croix homes. Now it could reopen.”
The article summed up the case for the scourge that has been killing people on St. Croix for decades becoming a Superfund site in one paragraph:
“Its previous owner, a partnership between Amerada Hess Corp. and Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. known as Hovensa, shut down in 2012 after suffering $1.3 billion in losses over three years. It left an environmental disaster: 300,000 barrels of petrochemicals leaked from underground pipes, polluting the island’s one aquifer, according to a finding in 1982. Bankrupt, Hovensa walked away without having to adequately fund a cleanup or fully pay class-action plaintiffs.”
This scenario was long before the current ongoing disasters, the most recent being a smoldering pile of pet coke that caught fire a few days ago, once again exposing Virgin Islanders to potentially toxic emissions.
Referring to 19 violations cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in November 2021, the Post said in its December 2021 article, “Despite all that, the massive oil and gas operation appears to be on the verge of reopening. On Tuesday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Southern District of Texas David R. Jones approved the plant’s sale. And the island’s governor, Albert Bryan (D), has lobbied EPA officials to allow whoever acquires the refinery to reopen it quickly in accordance with a permit granted to Limetree by the Trump administration.
Bryan did not respond to requests for comment.
(If this isn’t the perfect description of poisonous politics, I don’t know what is.)
And the Post doesn’t know half of the damage done to the territory for the last nearly 90 years at the hands of the refinery.
God only knows what victims and their families and loved ones have gone through.
In preparing to write this, I went through years-old communications from my dear friend, who I mourn still.
In a letter mailed from St. Thomas on Nov. 22, 1989, John wrote: “On a slightly more serious note, I finally got to see a good hematologist in San Juan and after another bone marrow sampling session (very painful– it will never replace sex) and a long list of questions, he gave me the cheerful news that people with my disease, Myelomonocytic Leukemia, have an average life expectancy of 3 to 4 years. Some people curl up in the first year, others he has treated have lasted as long as 10 years, but it does seem about 100 percent fatal. The chemo pills I’m taking will control it, but not cure it – and eventually, the body gets fed up with the chemo, says, “F..K IT, and that’s about it.”
This is a person, not a statistic. All those children at Sibilly school drinking from the poisoned wells via the school cistern were, and are, our friends and community members. The people on St. Croix living downwind for decades from the poisonous plant are also the neighbors we are charged with loving as we love ourselves.
The matter of shutting down this refinery once and for all and making it the Superfund site that it needs to be is personal, not politics.
As for the economics of it, there are two things I have to offer.
First: It is impossible to serve two masters: Money or love, which will it be?
On the second item, I quote a beautifully penned piece by David Bond, Frandelle Gerard, Sommer Sibilly-Brown, and Jennifer Valiulis, “Opinion: Refining Reality – What Really Happened Last Year.” “Crucians also made it clear that designating the refinery a Superfund site may be the best way forward. Beyond granting official recognition to what frontline neighborhoods have long known, such designation would also provide long-term and good-paying jobs, additional resources for impacted communities, stronger legal authority to compel guilty parties to start cleaning up their mess, and a process for the community to design a roadmap for building a cleaner and healthier St. Croix. ”
And as for the personnel, they wrote, ” The horror of last year is not easily forgotten by those who lived it. As we noted with the release of our survey results, the injustice inflicted on St. Croix by the refinery must be centered in any discussion of what to do next. Perhaps taking the last disastrous restart seriously will give credence to a new economy rooted in caring for the island, in healing the deep wounds left on the land, and in investing in the creativity of Crucians to begin the great transformation now needed.”
I cannot bring my friend back for a humor-filled evening, and God knows about the children affected by the water in their drinking fountains. And the ongoing suffering of those Crucians living downwind of the toxic, tragically outdated refinery is for them to bear, unfortunately.
But what about those yet to be born? What about the land? What about some semblance of a future for our children, who will likely be tasked with growing food on that land for our community when the supply chain finally breaks for good?
It is an election year. If it was ever time to put the well-being of our people before the poisonous politics that rule our community, it is now.