The Environmental Protection Agency withdrew a controversial permit for the Limetree Bay refinery on Thursday, while appeals are worked out. The refinery will continue to operate, but for the time being, loses some leeway in emissions for its other permits.
In February, several environmental groups filed an appeal to contest the refinery’s EPA “Plantwide Applicability Permit.” And the refinery appealed, arguing it is too strict.
In a letter to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., EPA Administrator Michael Regan said this particular permit never became effective because those appeals were filed in time.
“Although Limetree will not be able to avail itself of the operational flexibilities it sought to obtain pursuant to the PAL permit, this withdrawal does not require Limetree to cease operation. EPA will undertake a thoughtful, timely technical and legal review of the regulatory requirements applicable to the Limetree PAL permit under the Clean Air Act, engage with a broad range of stakeholders and take into consideration concerns from the nearby environmental justice community before making a final decision on this matter,” Regan wrote.
The permit was granted seven weeks before President Donald Trump left office, leading some to object that the administration rushed the permit through, out of an excessive zeal for deregulation and lack of concern for the EPA’s mission. (See: Donald Trump’s Parting Gift to the People of St. Croix: The Reopening of One of America’s Largest Oil Refineries)
According to an EPA statement, EPA is reconsidering the PAL permit in light of information received during the permitting process and President Joe Biden’s executive orders that federal agencies review environmental actions taken during the previous administration.
The statement says this type of permit would give a regulated entity like the refinery “some flexibility for how it manages air pollution emissions from modifications at a permitted facility.”
“Withdrawing this permit will allow EPA to reassess what measures are required at the Limetree facility to safeguard the health of local communities in the Virgin Islands while providing regulatory certainty to the company,” said EPA acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan in the agency’s statement.
When asked for comment, refinery spokesperson Erica Parson emphasized that the change does not affect operations.
“While we are disappointed in the EPA’s decision and believe it is inconsistent with the agency’s previous commitments, it is important to note that the PAL does not affect our current operations,” she said.
“Rather, it would have streamlined the permitting process for potential future investment in the refinery to allow Limetree to more quickly respond to market and customer demands, while also imposing tighter emissions limits than our current operating permits,” Parsons said.
The renovated refinery began commercial refining in January after an eight-year closure, and refinery officials say the permit fight does not threaten to prevent the refinery from continuing operations.
The former Hovensa refinery closed in 2012, after several unprofitable years and a 2011 agreement with the EPA to pay $5.3 million in fines and spend $700 million on plant upgrades to reduce emissions.
The St. Croix Environmental Association, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, in collaboration with Natural Resources Defense Council, Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic and the Neville Law Firm LLC, filed a petition for review of Limetree Bay’s Plantwide Applicability Limit permit with the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board. According to the St. Croix Environmental Association, the appeal faults the EPA for setting lenient pollution standards in the permit and failing to protect the citizens and environment of St. Croix.
The St. Croix Environmental Association argues the pollution has the potential to greatly affect St. Croix’s public health and environment.
When the EPA called for public comments in November 2019, SEA filed comments that identified problems with the draft permit and advocated for the EPA to deny it. Over 900 people commented on a Change.org petition created by SEA.
Representing the environmental groups, attorney Elizabeth Neville raised two main concerns with the permit. One, the level of pollutants allowed by the EPA Plantwide Applicability Limit permit issued in December is based on the amount of pollution emitted in the final months of the former Hovensa refinery’s operation, whereas they feel those limits should be higher.
“They are essentially what they were set at right before they were being fined under the Clean Air Act,” Neville said.
Also, they object to the permit designating Limetree as a “restarted” facility instead of a new facility.
At the time the permit was initially being considered, SEA argued EPA regulations required a plant shut down for more than two years be subject to the more rigorous standards applicable to a “new” facility.
“But the Trump administration threw out that policy,” Neville said.
Meanwhile, the refinery has appealed the same permit, opposing its requirement that Limetree performs ambient air quality testing.
“Not only does EPA lack the legal authority to make Limetree responsible for conducting ambient air monitoring as a condition of a PAL permit, [but] the facts do not support EPA’s speculation that the facility’s emissions might cause air quality violations,” the company argues in its filing.
Before shutting down in 2012, the Hovensa refinery employed around 2,000 people directly and another 2,000 indirectly and generated more than $100 million annually in tax revenues for the territory. Limetree Bay’s partial restart is smaller and may employ 700 people permanently and generate somewhat less revenue, but it is still a major economic engine.
At the same time, refineries, in general, have a troubled environmental history. The Hovensa plant had a long history of flares, sulfurous odors and aerosol sprays of oil that impacted neighboring residents. And the Limetree plant had a large flare not long before restarting.
For more details on the history of releases at the former Hovensa refinery, see:
DPNR, Hovensa Respond to ‘Smell,’ Water Issues
Workers Evacuated as Hovensa Tank Spews Oily Steam Cloud
Hovensa Completes Cleanup from October Oil Spray
Hovensa Sprays Oil For Third Time This Year