The Justice Department has announced the launch of the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Environmental Crimes Task Force to investigate and prosecute violations of federal law harming the environment, wildlife and human health, and associated fraud, waste and abuse in the region.
The creation of the task force comes one year after the department announced its Comprehensive Environmental Justice Enforcement Strategy and the creation of an Office of Environmental Justice within the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
The effort is aimed at advancing environmental justice in underserved communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened, including low-income communities, communities of color and Tribal and Indigenous communities.
It also comes as residents of St. Croix have expressed concern this week over chemical smells around the island’s container port that they say have left some feeling sickened. Officials from the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources said Wednesday that worry about the scent was likely the result of people’s hypersensitivity as hazardous materials were being removed from the nearby oil refinery.
The Environmental Protection Agency will hold a meeting Thursday at 5 p.m. to update St. Croix residents on the chemical removal from Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation, formerly the Limetree Bay Refinery. The meeting will be virtual, held over the Zoom platform.
In December, the EPA ordered Port Hamilton to remove toxic chemicals stored at the refinery on St. Croix’s south shore. A September report found the plant was in a dangerous state of disrepair. EPA officials had warned in March that there might be a chemical scent in the air during removal of the chemicals. If the chemicals in the air were dangerous, the monitoring equipment would alert residents, they said.
In July 2021, the Justice Department and the EPA shut down the Limetree Bay Refinery, saying that it presented “an imminent and substantial danger to public health and the environment” in a complaint filed in V.I. District Court. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas on the same day.
In announcing the task force on Wednesday, the DOJ said it is partnering with 14 government agencies on the effort, including DPNR and the EPA.
“All communities deserve clean air, clean water, and the robust protection of their natural resources — both, today and for generations to come,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This task force demonstrates the department’s continued commitment to environmental justice and its comprehensive strategy to address significant concerns faced by communities overburdened with pollution.”
“The United States Attorney’s Office, along with our federal and local partners, is committed to enforcing environmental laws. Our goal is to ensure that all our citizens receive protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to a healthy environment in which to live, learn, play and work,” said U.S. Attorney Delia Smith for the USVI.
The creation of the Task Force builds upon the Justice Department’s environmental justice strategy and brings together federal law enforcement agencies in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the release. Those federal agencies will continue to work closely with their local counterparts, including the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources, the Puerto Rico Department of Justice, the USVI’s DPNR, and the USVI Attorney General’s Office.
The task force will include law enforcement personnel from the following agencies:
- Army — Criminal Investigation Division
- Army Corps of Engineers
- Department of Agriculture — Office of Inspector General
- Department of Commerce — Office of Inspector General
- Department of Homeland Security — Homeland Security Investigations
- Department of Transportation — Office of Inspector General
- Environmental Protection Agency — Criminal Investigation Division
- Environmental Protection Agency — Office of Inspector General
- Food and Drug Administration — Office of Criminal Investigations
- Housing and Urban Development — Office of Inspector General
- IRS — Criminal Investigation Division
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — Office of Law Enforcement
- U.S. Coast Guard — Sector San Juan
- U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Smith encourages USVI residents to use the following contact information to report violations to federal agencies:
- If the violation concerns air quality, health, water, land, waste, chemicals and toxins (e.g. pesticides and lead paint), and/or a cleanup, contact the Environmental Protection Agency at www.epa.gov/report-violation.
- If the violation concerns fraud, waste and abuse of an EPA program, operation, grant or contract, contact Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General at www.epa.gov/office-inspector-general.
- If the violation concerns an oil or chemical spill, contact the National Response Center at 1-800-424-88022.
- If the violation concerns a marine environment, contact the Coast Guard at www.p3tips.com/tipform.aspx?ID=878 and/or Sector San Juan Command Center at 787-729-2041.
- If the violation concerns federal marine resources, contact the www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/enforcement or hotline at 1-800-853-1964.
- If the violation concerns harm to wildlife (e.g., pesticide misuse), contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 1-800-344-9453 or www.fws.gov/wildlife-crime-tips.
- If the violation concerns wetlands or navigable waters, contact your local district branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/Enforcement.
- If the violation concerns workplace conditions, such as chemicals or noxious fumes, contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at 1-800-321- 6742 or www.osha.gov/workers/file-complaint.
- If the violation concerns housing conditions, contact the Department of Housing & Urban Development — Office of Inspector General (HUD-OIG) at 1-800-347-3735 or www.hudoig.gov/hotline/hotline-form.
- If the violation concerns transportation of hazardous materials or a pipeline, contact the Department of Transportation — Office of Inspector General (DOT-OIG) at 1-800-424-9071 or www.oig.dot.gov.
- If the violation concerns medications, food products, devices, biological products, cosmetics, or other products for human consumption, contact the FDA at 1-800- 332-0127 (toll-free) or www.fda.gov/safety/report-problem-fda.
- If the violation concerns fraud, waste, and abuse related to U.S. Department of Commerce (including any entity receiving DOC funds) contact www.oig.doc.gov.
- If the violation concerns discriminatory environmental and health impacts, contact DOJ Civil Rights at 1-855-856-1247 or civilrights.justice.gov.
- If the violation involves public corruption, contact the FBI at tips.fbi.gov.