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EPA shut down Sainte-Croix refinery after oil rains on homes

“The smell was so strong, like sulfur, like rotten eggs,” recalls the 58-year-old housewife.

Then oil was discovered in his yard in mid-May. Two days earlier, a torch incident occurred at the Limetree Bay refinery upstream from Thomas’ house. As flames and smoke billowed from the flare, droplets of oil were launched into the sky, blown westward, and rained on neighboring houses.

In a statement sent to CNN, Limetree Bay said it intended to cooperate with the EPA and the local government to “prepare for a safe and compliant refinery restart.”

Today, Sainte-Croix, a predominantly black community in the Caribbean, weighs its economic future against the health and environmental impacts of betting big on oil.

The refinery has been a key source of jobs and income for an economy battered by hurricanes and the pandemic. But some of the islands’ 50,000 people are wondering if the price is too high, especially for a community on the front lines of the climate change crisis in the form of rising sea levels and increasing storms. powerful.

“We are at a crossroads,” said Jennifer Valiulis, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, who criticized the operation of the plant. “We have the opportunity to examine what we want our economy to look like, what we want Holy Cross to be in a world that is moving away from fossil fuels as a primary source of energy.”

For decades, the inhabitants of this 84 square mile island, the largest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands, have coexisted with great industrial production. The refinery opened in 1966 and, under the leadership of Hess Corporation and then Hovensa, propelled its Virgin Islands workforce into the middle class.

But the environmental and health record has increased. In 2011, the Hovensa oil refinery – at the time the second largest in the county – struck a deal with the EPA to pay more than $ 5.3 million for environmental violations.

The factory then closed and filed for bankruptcy. With its closure went more than 2,000 jobs.

Earlier this year, the facility – backed by private equity firms – resumed operations as Limetree Bay under a license granted by the Trump administration with a plan to produce some 200,000 barrels of oil per day.

Virginia Clairmont, who heads a nonprofit working to revitalize the town of Frederiksted on the west end of the island, told CNN she had doubts about restarting the refinery in the first place. After multiple incidents, she wants it closed.

But, she said, “if you talk about it, you will be attacked for trying to deprive other people of jobs.”

The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the islands’ economic woes, shutting down a cruise industry that attracts more than 1.4 million tourists a year. Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Virgin Islands in 2017, and the islands still bear the scars: a sailboat thrown like a toy on the shore; a tattered blue tarp on a missing roof, disintegrating under the relentless tropical sun.

In Sainte-Croix, the restart of the plant created some 400 full-time jobs. Government officials estimate that the operation could generate around $ 7 million in annual tax revenue.

Nellie Rivera-O’Reilly, owner of a jewelry store in Sainte-Croix and former lawmaker, was among the local senators who voted to approve the reopening of the plant. “As a business owner now, I see the benefits of having the refinery, or any employer of this magnitude, remaining viable on the island of Sainte-Croix,” she said.

Lawmakers were particularly concerned about health and safety, she said, and allocated funds for rigorous environmental monitoring.

“These things are happening in these types of industries,” added Rivera-O’Reilly. “The thing to do is to make sure that we learn and that we put measures in place to prevent that from happening.”

The Limetree Bay refinery is viewed from above in Sainte-Croix, Virgin Islands on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

EPA officials say they have received hundreds of calls and emails complaining about the plant since February. Tysha Henry, who grew up in Sainte-Croix, was among the appellants.

Henry, a human resources manager in Atlanta, was visiting his mother on the island in May when she said an overwhelming smell of gasoline woke her up in the middle of the night.

“It was like I was going to suffocate myself or something,” she said. The smell subsided within an hour, but the next morning, she said, her eyes and face were swollen and swollen.

“I won’t be going home while this smell is there,” Henry said.

Lawsuits representing hundreds of residents have been filed against the refinery in recent weeks.
The EPA shutdown order, which was issued at a time when environmental groups are pushing the Biden administration to bring environmental justice to communities of color, is just the beginning. fourth time the agency has used its emergency powers to temporarily shut down a factory.
This came two days after the refinery announced it was shutting down production on its own after the May 12 torch incident that spewed oil at homes west of the facility. – houses where residents collect rainwater from their roofs and store it in underground cisterns for drinking. , bathe and cook. The ordinance calls for independent audits of the refinery’s operations and its ability to comply with “environmental, health and safety limits”.

“This already overburdened community has suffered at least four recent incidents that have occurred in the facility, and each had an immediate and significant impact on the health of people and their property,” the EPA administrator said. , Michael Regan, in a statement announcing the emergency action.

Limetree CEO Jeffrey Rinker called the federal ordinance illegal and “unnecessary” because the plant had already voluntarily ceased operations. The company says there is no evidence their factory is causing some of the noxious odors, noting that a government-run landfill west of the refinery caught fire in early May and could have contribute to foul odors.
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In the statement sent to CNN, officials at Limetree Bay said, “We have no plans to restart the refinery until it is safe to do so.”

“Despite some of our struggles during this time of reboot, we remain committed to being a good neighbor and a responsible member of the Holy Cross community,” they said.

When the refinery reopened as Limetree in February, Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan, Jr., a Democrat, announced it as a “great victory for St. Croix” and all of America.

“In these difficult economic times, I am very happy that the refinery is creating hundreds of good paying and quality jobs,” he said in a statement.

Aides to Bryan did not respond to requests for an interview, but Bryan called the torch incident “totally unacceptable”.

He expressed hope, however, that plant officials “can rectify the problems and resume operations.”

Thomas, the woman who had oil in her yard who said she had a reaction to the noxious fumes, said the smells that had bothered her for weeks have eased since the refinery closed.

Since then, she said, refinery operators have washed her vehicles, gave her three cases of bottled water and promised to reconnect about oil that may have contaminated her tank.

As troubling as the incidents were, Thomas said she didn’t want the plant to shut down for good. It “brings a lot of jobs here,” she said. “I wouldn’t want them to close.”

“But I want them to take more precautions,” Thomas added. “You can have all the money in the world, but you can’t enjoy it if you’re not healthy.”

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