Seven years after Hovensa stopped refining oil on St. Croix, 35 new operators decided to be part of the effort to make the island a major player in the energy industry again.
The group represents Limetree Bay Refining’s first graduating class from a six-week program on refinery basics. They celebrated completing their coursework Monday with a short ceremony in the company’s cafeteria.
In 2016, affiliates of ArcLight and Freepoint Commodities purchased the Limetree energy complex, which was previously owned and operated by Hovensa. By 2018, Limetree Bay Refining announced it had entered into an agreement with BP, one of the world’s largest oil companies. This agreement would mean the restart of oil refining on St. Croix.
Erica Williams, Limetree’s senior human resources generalist, said Monday’s graduation was “historic” because it signaled “yet another milestone” for the organization.
Sen. Allison DeGazon, one of the scores of well-wishers who filled the cafeteria, said it was a monumental moment for the community too. Of the 35 graduates, all are Virgin Islanders – 26 men and nine women. During an interview before the ceremony, DeGazon said they represented promise for the Virgin Islands community.
“It’s delightful to see so many young men moving forward with this type of certification,” she said. “So many times, in our community, we talk about the negative as it pertains to young men, but by the numbers we see here, we have promise, we have hope, and we have young men who take their future very seriously.”
One of those young men is Altoglacio Straun. At age 19, he is the youngest graduate in the class. As class speaker, the St. Croix native outlined the journey that brought him to that moment. He talked about leaving the island after Hurricane Maria to complete his senior year of high school in Orlando and his desire to come back home to St. Croix in search of opportunities.
In a separate interview, he said he wanted to be back home to be in “an area where you don’t feel like an outsider.” He said he knew there were opportunities for young people in the territory and that all it required was effort in looking for them.
When the opportunity to be part of the Basic Operator Training Class came about, Straun said he’d already been doing hydroblasting work for National Industrial Services – a subcontractor for Limetree. He jumped at the opportunity to get in on the oil refinery action with an entry-level position. It’s work that he enjoys, he told the Source.
“Every day, you learn something new,” he said.
Straun and his classmates are a part of a process to “fuel the future,” according to Limetree Vice President of Refining Operations Brent Woodland.
“You’re going to be fueling your families with your income, you’re fueling the opportunity to learn and to grow,” he told the graduates during his remarks.
Woodland also said that part of the organization’s mission is to “revamp” operations for improvement’s sake. He told the newest process operators, a group that came in with little to no experience in the industry, that they were a part of the “revamp” process.
“You’re an important part of bringing new energy, new ideas, new concepts, new experiences,” he said.
According to Robert Weldzius, Limetree’s general manager and senior vice president for refining, the company will hire a total of 100 operators. The 35 new graduates will be a part of that group.
Apart from becoming contributors to Limetree, the new operators have become contributors to an important industry in society, according to Woodland.
“We provide capabilities for families to travel, for goods and services to reach around the globe,” he said. “This energy that we produce is what makes jets fly, what makes cars go, and our job is to control that, and that’s where you come in.”
So far, the new process operators have learned the theory on pumps, compressors, and valves. Now that they’ve finished their basic operator training class, they will move on to more specific training.
Instead of 10-hour work days, five days a week, they’ll go on to 12-hour work days, six days a week, trainee Raevah Matthew said in an interview after the ceremony.
Weldzius, like many of the speakers at the ceremony, emphasized safety when speaking to the graduates. He encouraged them to ask many questions, “look into equipment, climb towers, go into drums, trace lines” and learn as much as they can as they continue their training. He told the family members and supporters who were present that the training the graduates were receiving was “top-notch.”
“We’re not gonna start up the refinery until we are convinced that they know what to do,” he said.
The trainees are slated to transition to on-the-job experience soon. According to Weldzius, the refinery is set to reopen by the end of the year, but his team is hoping it will be sooner.