One day after the Limetree Bay Refinery on St. Croix announced it was shutting down, organizers conducting a community survey of the facility’s health and environmental impacts released some damning preliminary findings.
These include stories of children falling out of bed in the dead of night, choking and unable to breathe; parents who smelled petrochemicals and, thinking they left the stove on, stood up only to pass out and fall flat on the floor; people debilitated by fumes so thick they appeared as a fog inside their homes; workers unable to continue working outdoors as petrochemical fumes overwhelmed their job site; and ER rooms so full of people sickened by emissions that the wait for medical assistance stretched into the next day.
The survey, announced on June 17, was designed and organized by Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, the St. Croix Environmental Association, the V.I. Good Food Coalition, and David Bond, a professor of anthropology at Bennington College in Vermont who 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.
The survey takes about four minutes to complete and is open to all adult residents of St. Croix at the Bennington College website. Local volunteers also will take the survey door-to-door and outside stores in the coming days. The deadline is July 9.
The aim of the survey is to gather local information about the emissions and petrochemical releases from Limetree in the six months since it started operating in January, according to a news release the survey organizers issued Tuesday afternoon. The information is providing a preliminary measure and a map of the impact Limetree is having on the homes, gardens, water cisterns and health of residents of St. Croix, they said.
On Monday, Limetree Bay Refinery announced it will cease operations in September due to “severe financial constraints.” It has been shuttered since May 12, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered it to suspend operations for 60 days in the wake of several polluting incidents, including a large accidental flare that sprayed oil over some 137 homes in May.
“I am concerned about what this means for the people. All people, the people who will be laid off, the people impacted by the incidents, and the people of St. Croix. We are a community of Black and Brown people who have been historically burdened by the effects of the refinery and left with the aging facility, undocumented health impacts and no remediation to environmental impacts caused by refining. There is no question in my mind that this is an environmental justice issue and holding industry accountable is long overdue,” Sommer Sibilly-Brown, executive director of the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition, said in the release.
“The people of St. Croix are owed a great debt accruing from the historical operations of petrochemical plants on our island,” said Frandelle Gerard, executive director of Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism. “The decision by Limetree to cease refining operations is not only an economic decision but an environmental and health decision as well. The environmental injustices suffered by our community must be addressed and repaired. The health impacts of the recent incidents at Limetree Refinery are just beginning to be identified by an independent survey, and Limetree must live up to its commitment to address the health impacts and to repair the injuries and damage to the people of St. Croix caused by these incidences.”
“Limetree is lacking far more than just capital. Limetree has spent the past six months ignoring compliance with environmental law and disregarding the well-being of St Croix. Fixing the damages already done to the people of St Croix must be part of any decision to restructure Limetree’s operations,” said Bond.
As Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., refinery officials, and local leaders begin negotiating the next chapter for St. Croix, it is essential that the tremendous environmental and health impacts experienced by the people of St. Croix be acknowledged and remedied, the release stated.
Preliminary Findings on Impacts
The survey results so far show that hundreds, if not thousands, of families were severely impacted by Limetree’s unchecked and unmonitored emissions, and many have yet to receive any assistance, despite desperate and repeated calls to the refinery, local government, and the EPA, the release stated.
“Among the citizens we’ve spoken to there is a widespread sentiment: these Black and Brown communities feel under assault by Limetree’s environmental negligence and abandoned by government agencies tasked with protecting their health,” the press release stated.
The organizers said their survey of residents outside grocery stores and in impacted neighborhoods has found that hundreds of people on the West End of St. Croix struggled to breathe on a near-daily basis in late April and early May. Many continued to smell noxious gases weeks after the EPA shut the refinery down, they said.
During some flaring and emissions episodes at Limetree, a picture is coming into focus of entire neighborhoods stricken with severe headaches and vomiting, according to the press release.
People surveyed in Whim, Concordia, Whites Bay, Smithfield, Wheel of Fortune, and La Grange found an oily film on their gardens, their cars, their roofs, and in their drinking water cisterns after emission episodes at Limetree, the press release stated. The oily residue, which smelled of petrochemicals, killed vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and other plants.
Contaminated cisterns, the primary source of potable water, are still being used by some residents for bathing, cooking, and drinking water, the release stated.
Some of those with underlying respiratory issues such as asthma or lung cancer have shared stories of gasping for breath as their throats burned with asphyxiating, sulfurous emissions, terrified they would not make it to the phone to call for help, according to the survey organizers.
“Since this facility’s restart, fumes and flares and other incidents have jeopardized the health and well-being of the St. Croix community. If refining does resume at any point, our government leadership must ensure that this facility is in full compliance with environmental laws, robust pollution monitoring, and all available protections in place for the health and safety of the community that has long suffered the burdens of environmental injustice,” said Jennifer Valiulis, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association.
“The Limetree Refinery’s operational failures have assailed poor communities of color on St. Croix for the past six months. The people of St. Croix have witnessed their homes, their gardens, and their bodies drenched in petrochemical rain and asphyxiating sulfurous emissions on a near-daily basis. For weeks on end. This would not happen anywhere else in the U.S. And yet St. Croix is part of the U.S. The colonial truth of environmental racism and the substantive remediation owed the people of St Croix cannot be deferred in the decision to restructure Limetree,” said Bond.
The Limetree/Hovensa refinery has a long history of environmental neglect on St. Croix. Once the largest refinery in the world, the facility closed abruptly in 2012 after being fined and required to spend $700 million to address decades of routine contamination of the island’s air and sole aquifer, the press release noted. Sidestepping environmental law for restarting refineries, the Trump Administration permitted Limetree to come back online without first addressing damaged infrastructure and outstanding fines. After nearly a decade of being closed, Limetree resumed operations in January.
St. Croix is an environmental justice community, according to the press release. It is well-documented that poor communities of color often bear an outsized burden of the nation’s pollution problems, a trend identified as environmental racism, it said. To help rectify this, the EPA and others have committed to bringing extra vigilance to vulnerable populations to ensure their environmental well-being. These sensible safeguards have not yet been fully implemented in St. Croix, and Limetree is currently disputing designating St. Croix as an environmental justice community, according to the release.