Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Virgin Islands officials are investigating a second accident at a controversial refinery in St. Croix after it emitted noxious fumes that prompted some schools on the island to close Friday.
The release of sulfuric gases from the facility, which caused nausea and eye irritation in some residents and comes shortly after the Limetree Bay refinery showered oil on a neighboring community, has raised fresh questions about the operation.
The company and territory officials gave differing accounts of what emanated from the plant. Jean-Pierre Oriol, U.S. Virgin Islands planning and natural resources commissioner, said in a statement Friday that the refinery had released hydrogen sulfide, which can cause serious health impacts at high exposure levels during a short period. The company, however, said the hydrogen sulfide had been converted to sulfur dioxide before entering the atmosphere.
Oriol, said that his office was “aware of a foul, gaseous smell permeating through-out the Frederiksted area for the past few days” and is looking into the matter. He urged vulnerable residents to stay indoors until the fumes had dissipated.
“[The Department of Planning and Natural Resources] is advising the public that persons with respiratory ailments such as allergies, lung disease and asthma should consider taking protective actions,” Oriol said. “Protective actions include staying indoors or relocating to areas less affected.”
The company confirmed in a statement that it had experienced an accident that began Thursday night and lasted until early Friday morning, “which created a strong odor detectable outside the facility. Limetree has corrected the problem and will continue to monitor any additional impact to the outside community.”
On Saturday, it clarified that the upset had triggered a pressure relief valve that sent “an unusually high amount of sulfur-containing gases” into a flare, where they were burned before being released into the air.
“The executive management of Limetree Bay sincerely apologizes on behalf of the entire organization for the unpleasant odor that came from the refinery yesterday and for its impact on our neighbors and the community,” it added. “We are committed to investigating fully the reasons for this event in cooperation with local regulators, and to implement improvements to prevent it from happening again.”
High levels of sulfur dioxide can not only irritate the eyes, nose and throat, but cause inflammation of the respiratory system. Over time, it can contribute to lung and heart disease.
The refinery, which restarted operations nearly three months ago after the plant had been shuttered for nearly a decade, is already under scrutiny for a Feb. 4 accident that sent a fine mist of oil over broad swaths of the island, settling on houses as far as three miles away. The oil settled on cars, gardens, rooftops and cisterns filled with rainwater that residents use for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Earlier this month, the EPA sent a lengthy information request to the company, instructing it to provide details on not only the Feb. 4 flaring event but also any other accidental air releases that have taken place since last fall, when it began working on the refinery’s restart.
The refinery, which is a critical source of jobs and tax revenue to the territory, has come under sharp criticism from some residents who argue it poses an environmental and public health threat. The plant’s previous owners reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the EPA in 2011 after acknowledging that the operation had released at least 300,000 barrels of petrochemicals and polluted the island’s one aquifer.
At least three schools on St. Croix closed, according to an alert issued by the territory’s education department, which said “students and staff have reported nausea due to the smell, which was detected April 22.”
Russell Pate, a lawyer on St. Croix who represents residents who sued the refinery’s previous owner, said in an email he has been “choking in the smell” even though he lives five miles from the plant.
“The gas smells like a combination of natural gas and hot road asphalt tar and causes headaches over time,” Pate said, adding that the effect was especially acute in poorer neighborhoods where residents lack air conditioning and keep their windows open to stay cool.
Elias Rodriguez, a spokesman for the EPA Region 2 office, which oversees the U.S. Virgin Islands, said in an email Friday night that the agency will work with territory and company officials “to quickly gather information regarding this incident, including causes of the release and the current operating status of all units.”
“EPA is aware of the recent air release at the Limetree Bay facility and our acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan spoke to VIDPNR Commissioner J.P. Oriol earlier today to get an update on the Department’s response to this incident, which EPA and DPNR are taking very seriously,” Rodriguez said.
A month ago, the EPA revoked a permit that the Trump administration had awarded the company, which would have allowed it to expand operations, saying it wanted to assess what pollution controls were needed and to what extent it disproportionately harmed residents of color living closest to the refinery.