With Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Limetree Bay executives actively seeking a buyer to restart St. Croix’s shuttered oil refinery, an Engage VI town hall hosted by the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development on Thursday invited Crucians to reimagine their economy without it and ended with a call for action.
The Zoom gathering – one of three dedicated to the refinery’s community impact – came just as the EPA announced Limetree will begin shutting down on Saturday with a one-day pilot light test to make sure its lone flare has been repaired.
“I feel confident that history will confirm we were on the right side of this moment,” said Foundation President Deanna James, recalling the first shutdown under Hovensa.
Back then, the foundation and other grassroots groups had conducted roundtables with participants from business, government and rank and file residents, Williams said. The results were unexpected.
“One of the things that surprised us most was how resolved residents were in 2012 that the refinery was part of the island’s past,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, they were excited to imagine something healthier and more sustainable. (But) our policymakers defaulted to the same economic strategy.”
The groups are determined this time to put their economic ideas into policy and programs, aided by funds rolling out of the Biden administration to help Black and brown communities like St. Croix recover from their exposure to heavy industry.
From a panel chosen for its wide representation – Nathaniel Smith, CEO of Partners for Southern Equity; Wayne Biggs Jr., director of the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority; Walter Mugdan, Region 2 administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; Sydney Paul, manager of business intelligence and marketing for the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park – came many possible economic initiatives, among them:
– Prioritize financing and technical assistance for Crucian farmers to participate in the powerful agriculture economy and reduce reliance on imported food.
– Make our natural resources – beaches, rainforests and reefs – a priority to sustain our tourism industry while balancing the other industries we rely on.
– From the EDA’s recent Vision 2040 prospectus, right-size the V.I. tourism offer with a focus on sports, adventure and wellness; heritage and culture; longer stays; and smaller, more casual lodging and dining venues.
– The territory currently has about 70 technology companies, with 45 on-boarded in the last two years through UVI RT Park programs. Support these programs with a workforce talent database for businesses to tap into, and a job search platform for off-islanders with STEM skills to connect with opportunities back home. Teach coding to residents young and old with bootcamps and other short programs to help them acquire skills.
– Promote renewable energy enterprises and jobs that harness solar and wind, biomass, waste and other sustainable power sources.
– Stimulate a health sciences sector, creating jobs in telemedicine and specialty care.
– Another Vision 2040 goal: Encourage light manufacturing businesses such as packaging and promoting regional foods, or developing hemp-based building materials.
– Reach out to professional and tech services sectors to attract customer service call centers and back-office/remote office support.
– As the home of a major Caribbean university, make research a viable industry as well as a source of solutions.
– Spend money building the human infrastructure. Talent attracts businesses.
– Invest in community organizing to change the relationship between the people and the people who make decisions. Grow influence and power in the community.
Beyond Engagement, a Seat at the Table
Participants had many questions for the EDA’s Biggs about whether the demographics of the participants in Vision 2040, and the makeup of the EDA itself, represent the Crucian population that is about 75 percent Black and living significantly near or below the poverty level.
But the attendees broadly agreed with Vision 2040’s twin goals – reducing the cost of doing business in the USVI and embracing “industries of the future” – and nearly all of its specific recommendations. None of the participants mentioned the refinery in their ideations.
The real rub, all agreed, is getting government buy-in and funds to push forward. As a participant, Ryan Flegal, pointed out, “Notably absent at all the town hall meetings organized around the refinery and our next steps forward has been our governor.”
Only two senators, Samuel Carrion and Genevieve Whitaker, were visible in attendance.
Much of the excitement and discussion swirled around Biden administration programs such as Justice 40 that could provide funds for Crucian needs.
“Justice 40 requires 40 percent of all dollars that go toward climate issues to go to disenfranchised communities,” Smith said. “So what are we going to do about it? We created the Justice 40 Accelerator, providing funds for Black and brown businesses to compete effectively for the dollars that will be coming down.”
Smith hopes a St. Croix nonprofit will be ready to apply for the next tranche of Justice 40 funding. The federal FY22 budget will also contain significant funds for environmental justice, he said.
The Region 2 EPA office is talking to the St. Croix Environmental Association about a citizen scientist monitoring program that could possibly be funded. Also from Region 2, Dave Kuesner noted the American Rescue Plan whose Healthy Buildings Program offers $300,000 to the USVI and Puerto Rico for lead, asbestos and mold remediation.
“Other federal agencies – Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services – have more resources than we do,” Mugdan said. “The most important thing you can do is what you are doing: organizing yourselves and forming collaborations. We can keep you abreast of the grant opportunities and be a convener to bring you together with the other agencies in a collaborative way.”
Superfund Site – What are the Chances?
Since Limetree announced its long-term closure, Crucians have wondered whether it could be made a Superfund site to assure it’s cleaned up. Not easily, Mugdan answered.
The Superfund is one of two major EPA programs that clean up hazardous waste, he explained. Typically, it’s used for sites that are dormant; not, like Limetree, under corrective action.
The program starts with a preliminary assessment and inspection of the site. Then it’s ranked for the risk it poses to human health and the environment. Sites ranked 28.5 or higher are eligible for the Superfund, Mugdan said. Experts including former EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck believe Limetree would rank high.
The EPA then proposes a cleanup plan, taking public comments, and publishes a final decision. The polluter pays for the cleanup unless the entity is defunct or broke. In that case, the Superfund pays 90 percent and the local government 10 percent of the cleanup cost.
But, Mugdan said, out of 47,000 sites assessed by the EPA, only 1,813 have been placed on the Superfund list.
And the EPA does not place sites on the list unless the state or territory – in this case, Bryan or Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol – requests it.
Frandelle Gerard, who directs the Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism Foundation and moderated the panel, said work groups are forming to carry the community’s ideas into action.
Volunteers are needed to research Superfund sites and help the community understand them better; to develop organizing strategies, not only for the local community but to draw a bigger circle that includes St. Thomas and St. John; and much more.
“Organization leads to policy change,” Gerard said. “We vote and get upset because the people we voted for don’t do what we think they should. But who is driving those leaders?”
For more information about working groups or to join one, contact Jennifer Valiulis at the St. Croix Environmental Association at 340-773-1989 or firstname.lastname@example.org.