Trial Date Set for Refinery Cistern Suit

People who say the oil refinery poised their cisterns may see their day in court in 2026. (Source file photo)

Exactly three years after 24 Crucians filed a class-action suit alleging St. Croix’s oil refinery fouled cisterns with toxic spew from dangerous emissions, a Virgin Islands District Court judge set a trial day Tuesday.

Judge Wilma A. Lewis said attorneys for the cistern owners and Limetree Bay Ventures have until Nov. 10, 2024, to submit the evidence they plan to use in the trial tentatively set for November 2026.

The plaintiffs allege they or their property were exposed to oil, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, petroleum hydrocarbons, and other chemicals and particulates on at least four times between Feb. 4, 2021 and May 12, 2021. They claim dangerous emissions plastered their homes and in some cases lungs and sinuses with sulfurous and oily substances.

Delia Almestica, one of the plaintiffs, detailed the extent of the alleged problem in her portion of the suit. “In early March 2021, Ms. Almestica found droplets on her vehicle and the walls of her home. A sheen appeared on the surface of her cistern water. When she bathed, the oil residue remained on her skin. She smelled fumes of gas and oil and had difficulty breathing. She is asthmatic. Ms. Almestica owns a home business where she grows and sells fruit and vegetable plants. Following the incidents, her plants began to die off rapidly. She also has a sewing business that she operates out of her home. Her sewing equipment and materials were covered in dark brown soot from the heavy smoke released during the flares.”

Although there have been attempts to hold hearings before under a 2001 law expediting trials for older plaintiffs, it was not the first time the refinery had been accused of spraying nearby areas with oil. In 2010, oil flowed into a low-pressure elevated flare, where it sprayed out and was carried downwind over Henry E. Rohlsen Airport, estates Clifton Hill, Profit, and Enfield Green, according to a statement from the refinery, then known as Hovensa.

Hovensa offered people affected bottled water. In 2023, a judge ordered Limetree to do the same.

In 2006, water mixed with crude oil triggered a pressure-release valve, spraying out more than 100 gallons of oil in a fine mist. The contamination from that incident was confined within the boundaries of the refinery.

In 2005, water mixed with hot oil also resulted in an airborne oily mist. Roads were closed briefly and monitoring stations set up, but there was no report of contamination outside the plant. In 2002, spray from a pressure-release valve led to warnings to Clifton Hill and Profit residents not to use their cistern water, but subsequent tests contracted by Hovensa showed no effect on area water supplies.

Limetree Bay Refining attempted to restart the long-shuttered oil plant in February 2021, and again in April and May that year. Limetree Bay Refining was subsequently shut down by the EPA that May and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two months later. It was sold to Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation at auction in December 2021.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story was unclear about the relationship between Limetree Bay Refining, Limetree Bay Terminals, and Ocean Point Terminals. Neither Limetree Bay Terminals nor Ocean Point Terminals owned or operated the refinery.