On the Island Where It Rained Oil, a Chance to Reimagine St. Croix
When Sommer Sibilly-Brown was a child, she remembers passing by tall structures glittering with lights alongside the highway. During nighttime drives with her dad, it looked like a small city.
“When I was younger, those lights were beautiful,” she says. “Now when I see the refinery, I see the largest symbol of oppression in my community.”
Limetree Bay oil refinery, which announced its indefinite closure in June and filed for bankruptcy on July 12, first came to St. Croix—at 84 square miles, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)—in 1966. Back then, the refinery was a Hess oil project; the company was promising economic prosperity as it took over an area where farmland and a pristine lagoon once sat. By the mid-’70s, it was producing 650,000 barrels per day and became one of the largest, and dirtiest, refineries in the world.
In 1998, Hess joined forces with the Venezuelan government and rebranded the refinery Hovensa. That entity operated until 2012, when it shut down after receiving a fine of more than $5.3 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for air pollution violations and an oil spill into an aquifer that, over a 30-year period, was four times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. The EPA had also ordered the company to pay $700 million for new pollution controls. Three years later, Hovensa filed for bankruptcy.
After eight years of lying dormant, the refinery powered up for one last stint this past February as Limetree Bay. This was made possible by a new investor with close ties to former president Trump, whose EPA fast-tracked the permitting process at the 11th hour to get the troubled facility back online. The reopening was met with mixed reactions from the local community.
“There were a lot of people who wanted the jobs and the boost to the economy,” says Jennifer Valiulis, executive director of the local nonprofit St. Croix Environmental Association (SEA). About 27 percent of residents near the refinery live below the poverty line. “But once the refinery started operating again and there was accident after accident after accident, the conversation shifted toward ‘This isn’t worth it, we’ll figure something else out.’ ”
Alongside Valiulis, Frandelle Gerard, executive director of Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism (CHANT), was among those pushing for this shift, as she worked to spread the word about the refinery’s health impacts. Gerard herself lives and works to the west of—and downwind from—the refinery, where the fumes emitted during its operation were inescapable. “There were days that the smell was overwhelming, and we suffered from eye irritation, coughing, and difficulty breathing. There was no getting away from it,” she recalls.
Gerard and Valiulis are also keenly aware of the more serious health issues reported throughout the refinery’s history. SEA board member Kai Nielsen notes that his father, who worked for Hovensa, has had three close friends diagnosed with cancer. Doctors found benzene—a carcinogenic chemical released into the air during the oil refining process—in one friend’s bone marrow, he said. Benzene was also one of the four toxins Hovensa received Clean Air Act violations for in 2011.
“As we learned more about the refinery, it got scarier. It’s a beast,” Valiulis adds. “And even though we’re small, and we don’t have much in the way of resources, we couldn’t just ignore it.”
A Different Kind of Extreme Weather
The turning point for many local residents were two separate incidents—the first in February and another in May—that caused oil to rain down on the neighborhoods of Clifton Hill and Enfield Green, polluting drinking-water cisterns, ruining gardens, and slicking rooftops and window screens in grease. (Making matters even worse, since the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, many homes have been using tarps for roofs.) The event in May was triggered by a flare incident, which also caused a sulfur dioxide leak, and led Limetree to voluntarily shut down. Two days later, the EPA, using its emergency powers under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act and citing imminent dangers to the community, ordered a mandatory 60-day halt to the refinery’s operations. A little more than halfway into that period, Limetree Bay announced that it would remain closed indefinitely, citing financial constraints.
SEA has teamed up with larger groups on the mainland—NRDC, Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Vermont Law School—to draw the EPA’s attention to environmental injustices occurring on St. Croix. Valiulis points out that too often, the federal government ignores Crucian voices. “We’re treated very much like a colony, like a possession,” she says. “We weren’t able to determine our fate, and this has been treated like a sacrifice area.” Even with the mainland groups’ assistance, Valiulis felt like it was a David-and-Goliath effort.
“But we just kept banging on the EPA—at first with great resistance from the agency. And then, over time, with more agreement, and then with its own commitment,” says John Walke, director of NRDC’s clean air work and a partner of SEA’s since the news broke in 2019 that the Trump administration planned to issue a Clean Air Act permit to Limetree Bay, which Walke describes as a “sweetheart deal,” and unlawful.
Meanwhile, backed by their coalition partners, SEA, CHANT, and Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition have been addressing the refinery’s health impacts on residents while also focusing on the broader consequences—and opportunities—of the recent shuttering.
In the decade since she founded the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition, Sibilly-Brown, who also serves as the nonprofit’s executive director, has frequently questioned the refinery’s value to the people of St. Croix. At the same time, she’s concerned about the economic hit to the facility’s 271 employees who are slated to lose their jobs in September. And having already experienced a lack of accountability from Hovensa after its swift departure, she worries about history repeating itself.
“The raining oil and the noxious odor are acute incidents, but we have been in a chronic situation for decades that needs attention, support, and help,” she says. Despite having a rich agricultural history, the USVI imports 98 percent of its food. That wasn’t the case before the refinery came to St. Croix, when islanders grew more of their own produce, Sibilly-Brown explains. Today, there is little investment in agricultural infrastructure and a serious lack of support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The refinery’s oil pollution, which has covered crops from above and seeped into groundwater and soil from below, have created additional challenges for farming and food production on the island.
“We need to shift funding to stabilize this community so it doesn’t feel like after two hurricanes, a manmade disaster by Limetree, and a pandemic that we have no recourse. This is a real call to the rest of the nation to stand with us and help be our voice.”
At the same time, Sibilly-Brown and fellow Crucian environmental justice advocates are working to empower local residents. The day before the EPA officially halted Limetree’s operations, the groups held a virtual town hall, which included NRDC’s Walke as a speaker on the Clean Air Act and drew hundreds of attendees, many of whom recounted their experiences with the refinery. Residents expressed outrage at Limetree while sharing personal stories of living with unexplained health problems. Other people came to get answers to their questions about air-quality monitoring and the implementation of other safety measures.
“We're building the muscle of public trust in people,” Silbilly-Brown says, describing how the meetings have helped bring the community together to discuss their shared goals more openly. “It feels really good to be in conversation together.” She adds: “One thing I know to be true about St. Croix is we believe in fairness and justice. And I think the injustice is becoming so unbearable, on all fronts, that people are loudening up.”
In mid-June, the three groups, in collaboration with Bennington College professor David Bond, rolled out a three-week community impact survey to assess the toll the refinery has taken on people’s lives in the period since Limetree’s restart. While they were encouraged by the overwhelming response (which included feedback from 681 people from 120 different neighborhoods across the island), they were alarmed by the severity of the problems reported, particularly in low-income neighborhoods downwind of Limetree. In a July 14 joint press release, the advocates shared the news of three deaths that families attributed to the refinery’s pollution. They also detailed some of the horrifying experiences shared in the survey: healthy construction workers who collapsed from the emissions and were left unable to return to work months later, the air burning people’s lungs and throats and leaving them gasping for oxygen, residents fleeing their homes and sleeping in cars in order to escape the pollution.
As part of a wider campaign to collect more data and keep the community informed, advocates are now eager to set up a registry to track cancer incidence among their neighbors.
Valiulis, Gerard, Sibilly-Brown, and Bond are calling on the EPA to recognize the environmental injustices that Limetree perpetrated, to dedicate resources to assisting affected residents, and to conduct criminal and civil investigations into Limetree.
They’re also focused on the future. Valiulis sees Limetree’s closing as the perfect opportunity to diversify St. Croix’s economy and move away from its reliance on dirty fossil fuels once and for all. Vision 2040, a 20-year economic vision plan for the USVI that was created with community input, lays out goals like increasing local food production to 35 percent, developing ocean-centered research and tourism, and scaling up renewable energy sources to meet 75 percent of the islands’ needs. “The sun is out all the time here—we should take advantage of that,” Valiulis says.
For a community on the frontlines of climate change that has faced extreme storm after storm and big polluter after big polluter, Sibilly-Brown says environmental progress has been slow. “Because of the need for repair and the need for healing, people haven't been able to dream. We need to embrace the power we have in this moment—the opportunity that's present for us to redefine ourselves.”
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