Opinion: Can the Refinery Save St. Croix?

Savior or siren call, that is the question. For generations now, island politicians have held up the oil refinery on St. Croix as proof of a better future dawning in the Virgin Islands. For some, it still is. But one wonders what future the refinery now heralds: progress or perdition?

The debate over the refinery is far from new, but today the stakes couldn’t be higher: will rebooting the refinery finally deliver the islands from the economic doldrums of a territory adrift or chain residents to a sinking industry at the very moment when bold transformation is most needed?

For many elected leaders, the refinery’s projected revenue is the only fiscal rocket capable of launching the Virgin Islands into financial sovereignty. Governor Bryan artfully weaves this economic mantra into current events, describing restarting the refinery as “a strategic national security issue” and urging the Biden Administration to remove all “unnecessary roadblocks in the way of restarting this important asset.” According to Governor Bryan’s latest pitch, nearly every broken institution in the Virgin Islands can be fixed with a resurrected refinery.

Such elysian economics were heard at a legislative hearing this summer. Recalling the heyday of Hess, Charles Chambers of West Indies Petroleum and/or Port Hamilton Refining promised such a boon can again “be realized in the future with a restart of the refinery.”

Only one recurring fact trips up the pedigreed celebration of what manna a resurrected refinery might rain down on the Virgin Islands. Namely, everything else the refinery has rained down on the people of St. Croix.

Barely over a year ago, the refinery “experienced multiple major mishaps,” as the EPA has described it, causing the facility to spew an ungodly mix of aerosolized crude oil, asphyxiating sulfurous gases, and carcinogenic petrochemicals into surrounding neighborhoods. “The Island Where it Rains Oil” ran the Washington Post headline.

Nearly 20,000 people live downwind of the refinery, and their accounts of the refinery’s breakdown border on the nightmarish. From Clifton Hill to Frederiksted, residents experienced debilitating headaches, severe vomiting, neurological impairments, and gardens shriveling up (injuries consistent with perilous levels of refinery emissions). Partnering with neighborhood groups, I helped organize a community survey that gathered residents’ firsthand knowledge about these extensive injuries last summer.

At a recent hearing, the new owners of the refinery were asked directly about these catastrophic operational failures. Charles Chambers, CEO of West Indies Petroleum (but speaking for Port Hamilton Refining), voiced his commitment to “environmental consciousness” as he works to bring the refinery back online. He promised the refinery will actually follow the law this time (while suggesting the lax permits previously granted by the Trump Administration should be all the oversight needed). Downplaying five months of unmitigated disaster as an “incident,” Chambers also said the issues last spring were attributable to bad corporate management (while being unable to name the five “other entities” backing his purchase of the refinery).

The St. Croix refinery is on track to reopen in early 2023, Chambers told the VI Legislature (a week later, EPA Administrator Regan threw cold water on Chambers’ timeline).

Yet Chambers’ sonorous promises have not improved refinery operations, where it was recently revealed a coke pile has been smoldering since August 4. While refinery managers offer assurances that everything is under control, in late August, new fires were reported outside the coke dome. For far too many Crucians, refinery fires no longer register as out of the ordinary.

But, as Chambers explained at the recent hearing, prudent Virgin Islanders should be more forward-thinking. With skyrocketing energy prices, “there is a unique opportunity right at this moment to restart the refinery,” Chambers explained. And once the profit starts flowing, everyone in the Virgin Islands stands to gain.

Such promises fall flat for residents whose homes and health were damaged by refinery emissions last spring. Far too many Crucians continue to live with poisoned cisterns that have not been cleaned, contaminated gardens that have not been remediated, and bodily injuries from emissions that have not healed. The scarred voices of those residents were notably absent from recent hearings on the refinery.

Such promises also fall flat for farmers, fisherman, and frontline neighborhoods. They have long borne the brunt of the refinery’s environmental negligence in usurped farms, poisoned aquifers, collapsing fisheries, intrusive toxic vapors, and proliferating stories of cancer. And after the sprawling scale of fallout experienced last year, perhaps everyone on St. Croix now realizes they live in a frontline neighborhood.

Despite ongoing efforts to reduce last year’s disastrous restart to “an incident,” what happened cannot be seen as an isolated accident. For most of the past 50 years, the St. Croix refinery produced nearly 10% of all the gasoline consumed in the United States while operating in open defiance of workers’ rights, environmental protections, and safeguards for public health. The rule of law, it turns out, is a bit more pliable in the colonies.

In 1901, the Supreme Court granted the legal liminality of US territories a rather memorable definition: “Foreign in a domestic sense.” A half-century later and the acceptable disregard furnished by the territorial status of St. Croix became its most attractive economic feature. It’s what first enticed Hess Oil to Krause Lagoon, and it’s what subsequent refinery operators continue to profit from and ruthlessly demand. While such an arrangement lines the pockets of shareholders and select officials, the revenue drips with disdain for the full rights of Brown and Black Caribbean Americans living on St. Croix. Their lives are lost within the immense environmental cost of producing cheap gasoline for the mainland.

The mammoth refinery on St. Croix has always been just close enough to the United States to seize the advantages but just far enough away to avoid any responsibility for the resulting mess. Some local politicians continue to stand proudly within this colonial contradiction. 

Officials in the Government House still turn their backs on the refinery’s extensive poisoning of St. Croix to better view the coming windfall. They talk of future revenues that will save the Virgin Islands if we can only absolve the refinery of its own history of negligence. Such flights of fancy have long provided distant investors and complicit politicians their most persuasive justification for sacrificing the health of St. Croix on the altar of low gas prices for continental America: untold riches can buy their way out of any hell. Profits, not people, will save us in the end.

How many broken schools, shuttered libraries, and threadbare medical facilities are still waiting on that promise? How many farmers whose land and livelihood were violently stomped out with the arrival of south shore industry are still waiting on that promise? How many workers and residents injured by the refinery’s unchecked emissions last spring are still waiting on that promise?

Perhaps the primary accomplice to the refinery’s ravaging of St. Croix has been wishful thinking about the impending bonanza of oil refining among political elites.

Today that is beginning to change. Going door-to-door in neighborhoods across Kingshill and West End last summer, I met so many residents for whom the oil refinery has meant far more loss than gain. Outraged by the indifference of their elected leaders, these residents demand a more serious accounting of the harm done to Crucians. Residents demand investment on par with the care required to heal the deep wounds the refinery inflicted on the island. They demand a new economy that centers the well-being of people and the planet.

However, slightly, such work steers St. Croix in a new direction. Helmed by a rising generation fed up with the crackpot colonialism underwriting the refinery, this vibrant coalition of students, non-profits, farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and others demand an economy that centers the rich legacy and immense creativity of Crucians. Listening to the skepticism many senators expressed to the new refinery owners at the hearing this summer, it appears some politicians are starting to follow their lead.  

David Bond teaches anthropology at Bennington College. He researched the Hovensa refinery in 2010 and 2011 and has written on how the history of the refinery informs the present struggle for justice on St. Croix.