The Failure of Environmental Justice in the USVI

The twin towers of Limetree Bay refinery's coker rise in the distance on Tuesday, May 25, on the south shore of St. Croix, USVI. A coker malfunction contributed to the refinery's shutdown and bankruptcy. (Source photo by Patricia Borns)
The twin towers of Limetree Bay refinery’s coker rise in the distance on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 on the south shore of St. Croix, USVI. A coker malfunction contributed to the refinery’s shutdown and bankruptcy. (Source photo by Patricia Borns)

In case you are unfamiliar with the term, the concept of “environmental justice” refers to “a social movement to address the unfair exposure of poor and marginalized communities to harms associated with resource extraction, hazardous waste, and other land uses.”

The tragic exposure of St Croix communities to contaminated air and water emanating from the Limetree Bay Refinery in 2021 is a classic example of the failure of environmental justice. We didn’t see wealthy neighborhoods affected by the emission of toxic plumes and oil particles. The toxic rain fell disproportionately or low and moderate income homes, in close proximity to the refinery. Not unsurprisingly it was the people with the least economic resources to deal with this contamination who suffered the most, and the eventual amends made by Limetree were far too little, far too late.

So it was extremely troubling when Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. issued a public statement directed at President Joe Biden and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on April 13, 2022, to apply pressure to allow the rapid reopening of the Limetree refinery under new ownership. Knowing the hazards involved and the toxic exposure of Crucian people and Crucian lands and waters, Bryan urged the EPA to “not put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of restarting this important asset.” He said that the refinery “has new owners that are anxious to make the necessary investments and efforts to restart it.”

He then went on to say that “The refinery is a key element to the economic sustainability of the territory and that element should be part of ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE CONSIDERATIONS for the U.S. citizens resident in the territory.”

This statement by Governor Bryan is either a total misunderstanding of the concept of environmental justice, or an intentional perversion of its meaning. Environmental justice would dictate the polar opposite of what Bryan was pushing for in his letter. Environmental justice would demand complete remediation of the site and all private homes and lands affected by contamination. Environmental justice would bar any further use of Limetree Bay until ALL prior damage has been corrected and steps were in place to assure that NO contamination could result from future use. Environmental justice would put every conceivable roadblock in place prior to allowing reopening, not to be obstructive but to protect those people least able to protect themselves from this environmental super-polluter.

So, without a clear understanding of who the actual owners were (as we now know that the people Bryan thought had purchased the refinery are claiming they are not the owners), without encouraging total remediation and restitution, Governor Bryan pushed for rapid approval and removal of roadblocks. And then had the audacity to call this “ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE.”

Good job Governor “Approve-it-All” Bryan.

(For further information on Environmental Justice, this US EPA website provides excellent background.)

– David Silverman, Coral Bay, St John