With less than a week left to file asbestos-injury claims against former operators of the St. Croix oil refinery, Virgin Islanders have learned at least one of the company’s toll-free reporting lines doesn’t work in the territory. The company has also promoted a non-working website for online claims.
Virgin Islanders with a 340 number dialing 1-855-345-6272 will likely get the familiar beep-beep-beep indicating a non-working line. The Source could not confirm Friday if the alternative “international” number given, 949-236-4562, was or was not toll free.
The clickable link for a claims website that was distributed globally by the former refinery operators through multiple public relations websites opened a blank page. The broken link for asbestos claims against HONX — the Hess Corporation subsidiary potentially on the hook for asbestos-related injuries between 1965 and 1998 — was published as www.st.croixclaims.com. This was not a working site. The actual claims website appears to be www.stcroixclaims.com.
The real website, which redirects here, makes clear the dire nature of getting a claim in on time: “If you do not file an Asbestos Proof of Claim by March 17, 2023 at 5:00 p.m. (Central Time), you will lose rights to any potential compensation from HONX.”
The deadline to file claims against HONX is March 17 at 7 p.m. (Atlantic Standard Time).
The incorrect website is not the same as the one approved by the Southern District of Texas bankruptcy court handling the HONX case. Both the first and second notices approved by the court list the correct website. These correct notices were posted by the United Industrial Workers union’s website and tacked up in union halls on St. Thomas and St. Croix, union representatives said.
A representative of the former refinery operators, who asked not to be named, said letters containing the correct website information, as approved by the court, had been mailed to all potential claimants. The representative said the incorrect address was simply a typo and that the “international” number is toll free.
Numbers in the 949 area code, covering a small area of Orange County, California, are not generally toll-free like 1-800 numbers, especially for international callers. It was unclear if that included U.S. territories since the 1-855 number did not work. Many companies sell 949 numbers as call service centers, often requiring a fee. The Source reached out to one of these companies, JustCall.io Thursday and again Friday asking how much a call from the U.S. Virgin Islands would cost. Company representatives did not reply to the request for information.
Asbestos-exposure suits against the former refinery operators date back to the 1980s. Attorneys for former refinery workers and their families have alleged Hess subsidiaries have attempted to delay judgment and potentially liability payouts by filing for bankruptcy after settling hundreds of asbestos suits out of court.
Michael F. Williams, of the Washington, D.C. law firm Kirkland & Ellis, is the lead bankruptcy counsel for the refinery in the HONX case — listed as Hess and HONYC in court filings. Court records show Kirkland & Ellis billed the former refinery operators more than $1.8 million for their bankruptcy services in January alone, the month the wrong information about the claims website and non-functional telephone number was distributed. The former oil refiners, who are claiming insolvency, paid their lead counsel’s firm a rate of more than $1,300 an hour, court records show.
Neither Williams nor another HONX lawyer, Joseph Hanlon, of the New Jersey-based law firm Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edleman & Dicker, returned calls asking for comment Friday. The representative who did call back, asking their name and direct quotes not be used, said it was inaccurate to depict the claims website distributed as nonfunctional and reiterated that the phone number is toll free. They requested to review a draft of this article before publication, which the Source denied.
One of HONX’s local attorneys, Carl Beckstedt III, of the Christiansted law firm Beckstedt & Kuczynski, said he was unaware of the hotline and website snafus but added he was not representing HONX in the bankruptcy.
The dangers of asbestos — a fibrous, fire-resistant material that can lead to specific lung cancers — had been known since the 1930s and federally recognized as hazardous since the 1950s. The refinery on St. Croix, built in the early 1960s and opened in 1965, is thought to have contained millions of pounds of asbestos. Court filings allege workers were routinely exposed, especially while cleaning up storm damage at the plant. They also may have unknowingly brought the toxic fibers home to their families as it clung to their clothing.