10 Takeaways From Refinery Chemical-Removal Meeting

EPA officials Lisa Garcia and Walter Mugdan speak during the Wednesday night community briefing on plans to remove thousands of gallons of harmful chemicals from the St. Croix oil refinery. (Detail of livefeed screenshot)

Environmental, emergency management, and health officials explained plans to remove three hazardous chemicals from the oil refinery on St. Croix’s south shore for more than two hours Wednesday night. More than 750 people joined the video conference or viewed the briefing on federal and territorial social media broadcasts, asking pointed questions. Here are a few takeaways from the briefing.

1. St. Croix is concerned. After decades of polluted groundwater, questionable air emissions, fires, flares, accidents, and an oil spray that coated homes and fouled cisterns, Crucians were skeptical refinery owners would put safety and environmental protection first. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency found the plant lacked safety procedures and equipment to adequately meet an emergency. Although the refinery has changed hands several times since the 1960s, St. Croix residents asked why current refinery owners — Port Hamilton — should be trusted.

2. The EPA is taking a superfund-style approach. Some residents asked if it wouldn’t be better to declare the refinery an environmental hazard, designate it a superfund site, and dismantle it. That decision was largely between the refinery owners and the local government, said Walter Mugdan, the EPA’s deputy regional administrator. “That is not our role. Our role is to ensure if a refinery is operating there, and when it is operating there, that it is doing so safely in compliance with the environmental laws,” Mugdan said.

Either way, the hazardous chemicals at the plant needed to be removed. “Even if the facility were a superfund site today, we would be managing the removal of these chemicals in exactly the same way,” he said. The agency was dedicating the same staff it uses for nation’s worst environmental problems to St. Croix’s refinery, Mugdan said. The superfund brain trust is on the case.

3. Toxins at the plant were not a surprise. Refining petroleum requires hazardous chemicals. The EPA, refinery operators, and local officials knew the dangerous substances were there. Degradation of the vats and pipes that store the chemicals caused concern, said Lisa Garcia, the EPA’s regional administrator. “Why we want to remove the chemicals is because of the potential for something to happen,” Garcia said. “I am really hopeful that we caught this in advance.” Mugdan said the chemicals were being stored “in a way that gave us grave concerns.”

4. Scientists will monitor four levels of air-quality reports. Experts will measure air within the plant where the work is being done, at the fence line, outside the fence line, and by mobile monitors traveling around the community checking for potential fume leaks. The level of fumes that might trigger a response has been set very conservatively, Mugdan said, so the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency and the EPA could assess and respond before it became dangerous, he said. Smelling something might not rise to the level of a health hazard, he warned.

5. There are plans in place if things go wrong. If the toxic chemicals should somehow be released, people living nearby might be asked by VITEMA to shelter in place or even evacuate. But this is unlikely, Mugdan said. “We are taking every possible precaution and every possible care to ensure that doesn’t happen. But, again, we need to prepare for any eventuality,” he said. Health Commissioner Justsa Encarnacion said medical facilities will be in contact with VITEMA and ready if needed.

6. Texas contractors will remove the chemicals — there is a lot of it — and ship it off island. Some commenters at the meeting asked why Port Hamilton, or any potential operator of the refinery, should be trusted to remove the chemicals safely. Mugdan said the EPA was not. “We are not relying on Port Hamilton or its employees to do this work. That’s why we insisted they hire absolutely expert contractors who have the experience to manage this kind of work. That was done with our oversight and approval,” he said.

Fort Worth, Texas-based Specialized Response Solutions will remove the 8,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia first, then the remaining ammonia vapors left in the system. Both would be transported in special containers to ships to be taken off island. The work is expected to start in early April with the EPA on sight to monitor the work, said Douglas Kodama, an EPA on-scene coordinator.

Next, Deer Park, Texas-based HPC Industrial will remove 10,500 gallons of liquified petroleum gas at the plant. The chemicals are likely to be removed from March to late April, Kodama said. Lastly, around 253,000 galleons of amine solution containing hydrogen sulfide would be removed to approximately 55 shipping containers. Cleaning the amines area could take 200,000 gallons of water that may be appropriate for the refinery’s on-site wastewater plant. If not, it may need to be shipped off island. The amines removal is expected to happen from May to July.

8. There’s currently no known leak but there has been. There is no reason to think that drinking water on St. Croix needs further filtration, Mugdan said. “Whatever the current drinking water arrangements in the community are would remain unchanged,” he said. “While we have expressed our concerns about the state of repair or disrepair of the equipment there, there haven’t been any significant releases that would have caused a plume that would have gotten into the ground and ultimately into the ground water.”

St. Croix residents have cause for concern about their groundwater, Mugdan explained: “Dating all the way back to the 1960s, when the refinery was operating as Hess Oil, Hovic, Hovensa, a very significant amount of petroleum products were leaked, and did leak into the ground. And they are in the ground mixed with groundwater there. For many years, decades, Hovensa, and subsequently a particular entity called the Environmental Response Trust, which was created as part of the Hovensa bankruptcy, has the obligation, the legal obligation, to be pumping that contaminated that groundwater, that mixture of groundwater and oil, pumping it up, separating it out, and dealing with it appropriately. They’ve been doing it literally for decades and they will probably continue to have to do that for literally decades. There was a large amount of oil products underneath the refinery. But that groundwater is not leaving the site and getting into the community where it might have any impact on residents.”

9. A simulated chemical removal is already underway. VITEMA, the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Port Hamilton started a 30-day “tabletop” simulation of the chemical removal Wednesday, said VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen. “The purpose behind the tabletop exercise is to identify some strengths and weaknesses within our coordinated efforts,” Jaschen said. If chemicals are detected in the air, VITEMA needs to have proper communication in place to make sure people know the best thing to do — in English, Spanish, Patois, and whatever other languages that may be needed. “The messaging piece in this is so important. I can’t emphasize enough,” he said. Other partners in the exercise include police, fire officials, other emergency medical responders, Health and Human Services, the Labor Department, and potentially the National Guard.

10. Stay informed. Jaschen advised residents to stay informed via the VITEMA website and the EPA’s St. Croix refinery website. He also suggested Virgin Islanders sign up for the VI Alert system and IPAWS from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.