Foam Plastic Litters South Shore After September Refinery ‘Spill’

Foam blocks wash up on south shore beaches during and after Tropical Storm Karen. (Photo by Toni Lance)
Foam blocks wash up on south shore beaches during and after Tropical Storm Karen. (Photo by Toni Lance)

As Tropical Storm Karen passed south of St. Croix on Sept. 24, residents on the south shore noticed 110-pound polystyrene floats washing ashore. By the end of the day, more than 50 floats had accumulated on several beaches east and west of Limetree Bay Terminal.

Polystyrene, of which Styrofoam is the most common brand, contains suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins harmful to humans and wildlife.

One resident, Toni Lance, founder of the St. Croix Avian Sanctuary, thought to contact Limetree but wasn’t sure whom she should to contact. She finally called a friend in the marine division who thanked her for the alert. She wouldn’t find out how to contact Limetree to report issues until almost two months later.

After the storm passed, she counted around 30 floats on one beach that borders her property and 23 on another, near Cane Garden.

The next day, a group of people showed up, saying they represented the company building the underwater pipeline – the single-point mooring line for Limetree Bay Refinery. Despite not having proper clothing or footwear, they removed some of the floats, according to Lance.

“They pulled up and hauled up about 10 to 12 on beach No. 2 and No. 3. They rolled about six off Cane Garden beach No. 5 and strapped them to a Fleming Transport truck,” she said.

The offshore mooring will be used by the largest oil tankers – those with as much as two million barrels of fuel to load or offload. The floats were used to buoy the pipeline as it was being lowered onto the ocean floor, but they broke loose during the storm, said Amy Dempsey of Bioimpact Inc. Her company is responsible for managing the installation of the single-point mooring system and monitoring it in the future. Dempsey said the tropical storm that brought six-foot seas to the island affected the water more than the land.

Toni Lance and Barbara Walsh point out polystyrene debris from larger blocks washed up on the beach. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)
Toni Lance and Barbara Walsh point out polystyrene debris from larger blocks washed up on St. Croix’s beach. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)

By Sept. 26, the water was calming down, Lance said, but floats continued to show up on the beaches. Residents called Limetree again, since no one representing the terminal had been seen on the beaches. They also called the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, the EPA and the St. Croix Environmental Society. Fish and Wildlife representatives said floats were being retrieved from the south shore west of the refinery near Sandy Point. Otherwise, nobody seemed very interested, Lance said. Late that afternoon, a representative from Limetree and its contractors visited Lance and said that more crews were on their way.

Over the next three days, workers from various organizations retrieved more than 50 polystyrene floats, dragging them across the beach and out to sea with boats. On the 27th, representatives from Limetree’s environmental team showed up at Lance’s house to survey the beach and discuss options. They used drones to survey the waterfront and removed another 10 polystyrene blocks.

After Sept. 28, a few people came to clean the beaches, but as of last week the shorelines were still littered with rice-sized and larger flecks of polystyrene. Lance said she was still concerned about birds and marine animals ingesting the substance, which contains toxins and takes 500 years to decompose.

During the Limetree Open House Saturday, the Source asked several officials why the beaches haven’t been mitigated thoroughly, what their response protocol is and how the community can alert the company when they encounter problems originating at Limetree.

“We put together a pretty solid response. We raked and inspected the beaches,” said Jeff Charles, vice president of terminal operations. A lot of other debris was removed at the same time, filling the back of a pickup truck, he said.

Foam blocks from Limetree pipeline installation. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)
Foam blocks from Limetree pipeline installation. (Source photo by Susan Ellis)

Charles said there are 130 plus employees designated to respond to environmental emergencies as well as several national agencies.

Jeff Hersperger, senior vice president of operations, Robert Weldzius, senior vice president of refining, and Charles seemed not to know the foam was still present in harmful quantities on the beaches. All three spoke with Lance and promised to follow up with whatever was necessary to clean up the remaining debris.

On Sunday, the executives visited the beaches near Lance’s home and vowed to complete the cleanup.

“We’re committed to pick up everything we possibly can,” Charles said.

Hersperger pointed out that since the single-point mooring system has been completed, the floats would never be used again. Soon, the company will form a community partnership and an operations control center within the facility. They will publicize the response plan, before the refinery restarts, so the public stays informed. Until the formal plan has been revealed, the public can call 340-692-3000 to report an issue, he said.