EPA closed a refinery that rained oil. Now it’s a ‘ticking time bomb.’

The Limetree Bay refinery is seen from above in St. Croix on March 18, 2021. (Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges)

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WASHINGTON – An oil refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands that the Environmental Protection Agency shut down in spring 2021 now poses the risk of a fire, explosion or other “catastrophic” releases of “extremely hazardous substances,” the agency found in a report released [last] week.

The idled plant on St. Croix, formerly known as the Limetree Bay refinery, experienced a series of accidents over the course of last year that spewed noxious fumes and showered oil droplets onto nearby homes, sending some residents to emergency rooms. Now deteriorating conditions at the massive facility, which was sold in a bankruptcy auction in December, pose a major test of the Biden administration’s commitment to environmental justice.

In September, the EPA conducted an inspection of the refinery and observed “significant corrosion” of equipment including valves, pipes and pressure relief devices, the agency said in a letter sent to the owners’ lawyers Oct. 13 and made public this week.

“These conditions demonstrate a risk of imminent release of extremely hazardous substances,” the EPA said in an inspection report. “Because of this degree of corrosion, the vessels, piping, and/or valves may fail, resulting in a catastrophic release.”

Local residents question why federal officials have not done more to protect the health of this Caribbean island’s largely Black and Brown population.

“This report is equally alarming and affirming to those of us in the civic sector who have been sounding the bullhorn about the dangers posed by this refinery for years,” Deanna James, president of the St. Croix Foundation, said in an email. “Since 2019, St. Croix Foundation and our nonprofit partners have been on a lonely advocacy journey trying to compel policymakers to consider alternatives to this ‘ticking time bomb’ on our shores – to no avail.”

The Limetree Bay refinery is seen about a month after a flare that spewed oil droplets over nearby homes. (Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges)

Elías Rodríguez, a spokesman for EPA Region 2 – which oversees New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight Native American tribes – said the agency is “continuing its vigilant oversight” of the refinery.

“EPA takes very seriously our duty to ensure that the facility complies with federal environmental rules designed to protect people,” Rodríguez said in an email. “EPA will use its authorities to protect the protect the health and safety of the facility workers and those who live in nearby communities.”

The refinery, which received approval to operate during the Trump administration, has come under closer scrutiny since Biden took office. The EPA shut down the facility in May 2021 after residents across the island reported feeling nauseous and ill from the release of gaseous fumes.

In particular, EPA inspectors voiced concern about equipment containing ammonia and liquefied petroleum gas. Exposure to high levels of ammonia can cause a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat and can result in lung damage or death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After the facility’s previous owners filed for bankruptcy in July 2021, a bankruptcy judge approved the plant’s sale for $62 million in December to West Indies Petroleum and Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Fermin Rodriguez, vice president and refinery manager for Port Hamilton Refining, said the company is “working with EPA and we’re providing all of the information that they requested. And we’re going to have independent inspectors here this week to validate what they indicate in the report.”

In a news release issued Wednesday, the company sought to reassure local residents and indicated that it plans to restart the refinery when it is safe to do so.

“[D]espite recent reports of concerns about the safety of the facility, the company continues maintaining the facility it purchased in January of this year in preparation for a safe start-up,” the company said. “. . . As we have stated before, the safety of our refinery employees and the safety of the community is our number one priority.”

In June, West Indies Petroleum denied its ownership interest in the facility, despite having won the bankruptcy auction. Representatives for the firm could not be reached for comment.

Judith Enck, who was tapped by President Barack Obama to lead EPA Region 2, expressed alarm that the agency waited nearly three weeks after the inspection to send the letter to the plant’s attorneys.

“This is not a situation where you politely exchange letters between lawyers,” said Enck, who now heads the Beyond Plastics advocacy organization. “This is a serious situation that needs the attention of the highest levels of EPA.”

Enck called on EPA Administrator Michael Regan to “cancel his weekend plans” and immediately board a flight to St. Croix, where she said the agency must inform residents of the imminent threats to their health. A recent survey found that roughly 20,000 people live downwind of the refinery, while in an earlier 2019 analysis, the EPA noted that 75 percent of residents of adjoining neighborhoods are people of color and 27 percent live below the poverty line.

Rodríguez, the EPA spokesman, said the agency took three weeks to send the letter because “time was required, especially with a facility of this size and complexity of the issues involved.”

Jennifer Valiulis, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, lives about two miles from the plant and questioned whether the federal government would act with more urgency if the situation were unfolding in the contiguous United States.

“Not only are the surrounding communities primarily Black and Brown, but also as a territory, we have a different status in that we don’t vote for the president,” Valiulis said. “We don’t have a voting member of Congress. And so we have less ability to advocate for ourselves.”

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