WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday ordered a controversial refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands to stay shut for 60 days because it poses an “imminent” threat to people’s health, a rare step marking the first significant environmental enforcement action undertaken by the Biden administration.
St. Croix’s Limetree Bay Refining started operating in February after Trump administration officials expedited a key permit. Since then, it has showered oil on local residents twice, spewed sulfuric gases into the surrounding area and released hydrocarbons into the air.
“Today, I have ordered the refinery to immediately pause all operations until we can be assured that this facility can operate in accordance with laws that protect public health,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.
“This already overburdened community has suffered through at least four recent incidents that have occurred at the facility, and each had an immediate and significant health impact on people and their property. EPA will not hesitate to use its authority to enforce the law and protect people from dangerous pollution where they work, live, and play.”
The move marked a sharp turn of events for an island that remains a tourist mecca, but has suffered the harsh impacts of industrial development for decades. Since the start of the year, many residents have struggled to breathe at times as the stench of pollution has invaded their homes, schools and offices.
While the Biden administration has dispatched staff to the island and pushed the company to expand air monitoring, some St. Croix residents suggested during a virtual town hall Thursday evening that their own government had failed to protect them.
ChenziRa Davis-Kahina, a native of the territory, said that residents are grateful for officials’ “very eloquent language” and the push to install monitors, but “people are being harmed. Our children are suffering.”
“Why are they being allowed to operate without monitors? Why are our officials meeting, instead of shutting them down?” Davis-Kahina asked. “This is becoming uncomfortable to a point that we have to put out a hashtag, like, ‘We can’t breathe.’ We have to put out hashtags, like, ‘Stop killing us.’ We have to put out hashtags to get people to hear what’s happening here in a place that’s supposed to be America’s paradise.”
Legal experts said it was highly unusual for EPA to order an entire refinery, rather than just one part, to be closed while managers addressed a potential health threat.
On Wednesday the company announced it was temporarily halting operations after an accident sparked a fire and sent a fine mist of oil over an affluent community to the west, polluting water supplies. The oil traveled several miles, reaching the airport as well as Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge.
The rapid succession of mishaps has turned the refinery into a national litmus test over how to weigh the fossil fuel industry’s impact on vulnerable communities. Along with an adjoining logistics hub, Limetree generates at least $25 million a year to the U.S. Virgin Islands government. With some residents now questioning whether their elected officials can protect them from harm, Biden officials have scrambled to bring a greater level of accountability to an area where industry has operated with little oversight for decades.
Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in an email that the agency would invoke its shutdown authority “if that’s the only way to stop air pollution that is an immediate danger to public health.”
“The agency has almost never used that authority,” said Schaeffer, who headed EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement from 1997 to 2002. “The situation on St. Croix must be terrible if they are thinking about shutting down the island’s refinery.”
Limetree could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
During the virtual town hall organized by the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, foundation president Deanna James said they the meeting was a “response to the first oil release even back in February, which many if not most in our community only learned about in a Washington Post article that was published almost a month after the actual event.”
“The trust of the community has been breached,” said Frandelle Gerard, who directs the Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism Foundation and moderated the event.
The U.S. Virgin Islands health commissioner and chief public health officer, Justa Encarnacion, confirmed that since a gaseous leak caused a sulfurous stench on May 5, the health department has logged more than 200 reports from residents with complaints about the odor and bad health.
“Nausea, vomiting, stomach aches, itching, irritated eyes and rash” have been reported, Encarnacion said. At least nine people visited emergency rooms “and we did see some individuals who went to their private providers as well,” she said.
Jennifer Valiulis, the executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association who lives about two miles from the plant, said panic sets in “when I get that first whiff of sulfur, and I know soon it will be painful to breathe, a stabbing headache will set in and I will have to lay down because I feel sick to my stomach.”
EPA Region 2, which is based in New York City, recently dispatched staffers along with sulfur dioxide monitoring equipment to evaluate air pollution levels. It has assigned 40 people to work on the matter, including two contractors and three employees in St. Croix.
But the office’s acting administrator, Walter Mugdan, said during the town hall that the monitors were not yet functioning and that the agency would not be able to identify the level of contamination from past accidents “with precision.”
“What we’ve been seeing here is unacceptable,” Mugdan said, reiterating a tweet EPA Administrator Michael Regan made on Wednesday. Limetree Bay, he added, “is not how a normal refinery operates.”
Gov. Albert Bryan, a Democrat, and most other territory officials had welcomed the restart of the plant, which had operated for decades under a different ownership, and Trump officials went to extraordinary lengths to ensure it could begin processing low-sulfur maritime fuel for BP this year. The two Limetree facilities employ more than 400 full-time workers, virtually all of them territory residents, and 300 contractors.
But the repeated accidents have ignited an outpouring of resistance from residents on the small Caribbean island, who argue that they are paying the price for the territory’s economic engine.
Jean-Pierre Oriol, the territory’s planning and natural resources commissioner, defended the government’s handling of the matter and said it had pushed for the plant to shut down voluntarily after this week’s accident. Noting that the refinery had released widespread air and water pollution under a previous owner before closing nearly a decade ago, he added, “Because of the history, it may take some time before trust is restored.”
U.S. Virgin Islands Sen. Samuel Carrion, I, one of the few local politicians to criticize the plant, said legislators appropriated $900,000 to $1 million to Oriol’s department for more staff and the purchase of equipment, such as monitors. “We know that Limetree is an industry that is providing revenue to the territory, economically. But we also understand, above everything, the importance of the health and well being of our people. And that comes first.”
John Walke, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called on the EPA to do more to protect residents. “What the island is experiencing is harmful air pollution, toxic chemical releases, not just odors,” he said. “The federal Clean Air Act is a powerful law, but must be enforced in order to protect people.”
The refinery’s problems have received intense scrutiny from the Biden administration, which has pledged to make environmental justice one of its top priorities. On Friday the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council released a new set of recommendations that urges EPA consult with residents of St. Croix’s south shore, which has born the brunt of industrialization for decades, on how “investments can best be made to address environmental injustice, including but not limited to groundwater, air quality, and coastal zone cleanup.”