Bryan Opens Up About Refining’s Future on St. Croix

Karmon Walters of St. Croix inspects her roof for signs of oil from the nearby Limetree Bay oil refinery. (Photo by Patricia Borns)

For the first time since toxic flares and oil sprays silenced St. Croix’s Limetree refinery, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. spoke openly with the community coalition that’s surveying the refinery’s impact on Crucians’ health and answered Source questions.

Bryan on the role of the EPA
National media reports have blamed Limetree’s restart debacle on the Trump Environmental Protection Agency for allowing it to escape the complete modernization usually required of operations coming out of mothballs.

Since April, under the Biden administration, the EPA has taken a more active stance. It cited Limetree for its lack of fence line air quality monitoring, for example, and sent its own equipment and staff to do the job.

Bryan has expressed discomfort with this tougher EPA. The Source asked him to share what he’d like the Biden administration to ease up on.

“We are working with the EPA and the refinery to establish what is needed to safely restart,” he said by email. “The refinery has cooperated with all of the EPA’s requests and there is no need for a prolonged legal battle if we can all get on the same page. We need to be assured that there is not a concerted effort by the EPA to shut down the refinery without giving them a real chance to correct whatever discrepancies that are identified.”

Bryan opened up further during a surprise Saturday visit to station WSTX, where University of Vermont Professor David Bond and the V.I. Good Food Coalition’s Sommer Sibilly-Brown were spreading the word about the coalition’s Community Impact Survey, which is assessing the refinery’s impact on Crucians’ health and homes.

The coalition has made clear it believes a strong EPA is necessary to assure Crucians’ safety. As recently as Friday, the members called on top EPA Administrator Michael Regan to send expert staff to oversee the refinery’s shutdown. On Monday, they scored a win as the EPA announced it will leave its air quality monitors in place until further notice rather than remove them as planned.

Bryan disagreed. The EPA acted too harshly, he said; not only in May when it ordered a 60-day pause of Limetree’s operations but also in 2011 when under the Obama administration it brought Hovensa to task for violations that included polluting the island’s groundwater supply.

“The EPA has only issued this kind of shutdown 11 times in its history, and the Biden administration has already done it twice. … (As a territory) we get abused. There’s stuff they do to us that they don’t do to other states,” he said.

Bryan on the refinery’s safety and impact
Bryan, who worked in the refinery in 1989 while a student, stressed the improvements in safety since the Hess and Hovensa days. “We are in a completely different space than in 2012,” he told the Source. “Limetree has invested over $2 billion in bringing the refinery up to today’s standards. In fact, some of the standards established by the decree are even stronger than the current requirements in the federal law. We have a completely modernized facility that meets the current standards. In 2012, that was not the case.”

Bond wasn’t convinced. The EPA hasn’t agreed that Limetree has met all of Hovensa’s consent decree obligations, he said. But they were on the same page about refining’s environmental scars:

Bryan: “I’m not going to debate the impact to the community because that’s not debatable. … The refinery completely changed the landscape of St. Croix.”

Sibilly-Brown: “Including environmental degradation.”

Bryan: “It did.”

He added, “No one can argue that there are health effects from working in the plant and living close to the plant.”

But while Sibilly-Brown and Bond advocated for a greener St. Croix, Bryan seemed to suggest the contamination of the refinery and other industrial sites is so extensive that there is no alternative but to continue.

“The cat is already out of the bag. The cow has left the barn,” he said, citing the island’s Martin Marietta Aluminum site for one example.

For the refinery, “We’re trying to make sure it’s only a short time that it’s closed. We have been in conversation with the chairman at EIG (EIG Global Energy Partners is Limetree’s owner), a couple of the officials in the EPA and the White House … trying to get this refinery restarted as soon as possible,” he said. “We can’t afford to have an eyesore on our shoreline.”

Bryan on Refining’s Future on St. Croix
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that EIG, “without a clear path to reopening,” is in restructuring talks with its creditors. The Source asked Bryan if any investor would realistically want to take on the financially ailing refinery without also getting the lucrative terminal operation, which Limetree said it will continue to run.

“Once again, the refinery has already been modernized,” Bryan responded. “The terminal is a separate corporate entity and has an inherent value on its own. Any investor will have to work out terms just like the current one did.”

While agreeing with the need to diversify the territory’s economy, the governor said it would happen over a 10- to 15-year horizon.

A lively debate ensued when Sibilly-Brown expressed her belief that St. Croix could feed itself again. “I’m willing to invest further (in farming), but I don’t think it’s a game-changing industry,” Bryan said.
When Bond suggested the days of Caribbean fossil fuel refining are numbered, he responded, “Any Caribbean leader in the entire territory, if they could put that refinery on their island, they would do it. … I was always one of those people who said I would be on the last barrel of oil floating out of here when the refinery closes. But it’s nine years later, and we are still here.”

Although Aruba, Trinidad and Puerto Rico shut down their major oil refineries between 2012 and 2018, they are trying with great difficulty to revive them because of their over-dependence on tourism, which has been hit hard by COVID, according to several news reports.

At one point Bryan asked, “Do you genuinely believe the people of St. Croix want the refinery shut down?”

The survey doesn’t ask that question directly, Bond replied. But to the question, ‘Do you trust Limetree?’ “almost overwhelmingly, from the people we are hearing from, they do not,” he said.

Bryan’s commitment to oil refining, so strong as to seem the only way forward, took Bond aback, he admitted later. But he and Sibilly-Brown were pleased that he joined the conversation, and even more pleased that he agreed to meet with them again.

Asked if he would review the survey results with the coalition team, the Health Department and Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Bryan answered, “Absolutely.”

He also promised to find government assistance for families who are still trying to recover their water supply or who are struggling with lingering health effects.

“My heart goes out to people, what they have had to endure with the smells, the gas, the emissions, from the refinery,” Bryan said. “But they are abnormal emissions. And what we want to be able to do is make sure the refinery is functioning safely in a normal way, because there’s no way it’s acceptable for us in the community.”

The Community Impact Survey continues through July 9 and can be completed online.