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Fighting Environmental Racism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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May 17 case update:  EPA used its emergency powers under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act to halt operations at the Limetree Bay oil refinery described below, citing "imminent" health threats. The latest action comes on the heels of several enforcement meetings between VLS's Environmental Justice Clinic and the EPA and a fire that broke out at the refinery on May 12. The clinic is grateful to have helped their clients find some relief. 

Students in Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic are standing up for frontline communities. They are supporting the St. Croix Environmental Association, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, and local U.S. Virgin Islands residents in their fight against an oil refinery that has polluted St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands for more than 50 years. Ahead, student clinicians outline what you need to know about the recent appeal they helped file.

By Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, Zoe Souder, and Stephanie Leombruno

February 12, 2021

As student clinicians in Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic, we represent and partner with disenfranchised communities fighting racial and economic disparities in the distribution of polluting sources, while also fighting for a say in decisions affecting their future. At the onset of the semester, we were eager to dive into our cases and uphold the clinic’s mission. But we were not quite prepared to see such egregious acts of environmental racism in our first case, which centers on an oil refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here’s why this case matters.

A history of injustice must not repeat itself. St. Croix—or Ay Ay, as it was known to the Indigenous population—has been occupied by colonizers since the 15th century. After hundreds of years of various colonial powers, Indigenous genocide and displacement, a brutal slave trade, and a sugar-based plantation economy, St. Croix eventually became a part of the United States. In 1917, Denmark sold St. Croix (and St. Thomas and St. John, the other islands that now comprise the U.S. Virgin Islands) to the United States for $25 million. St. Croix has a predominantly Black and Hispanic population that, due to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular cases (written by the same justice who wrote Plessy v. Ferguson), residents have limited self-governance, cannot vote for President, and have a non-voting delegate in Congress. While residents democratically elect their governor, the U.S. Government ultimately makes decisions for the U.S. Virgin Islands without their full voting participation. This power imbalance renders St. Croix exceptionally vulnerable to environmental abuse.

The refinery polluted St. Croix for decades. The refinery’s tragic environmental history began in the mid-1960s when Krause Lagoon, the largest wetland and mangrove forest on the island, was destroyed to build the facility on the south shore. Between 1978 and 2008, the Hovensa oil refinery, one of the largest in the world, released 42 million gallons of petroleum product into the aquifer—nearly four times the amount of petroleum released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. The refinery also released high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, two pollutants that can have adverse impacts on human health, and are significant contributors to acid rain, smog, and haze. Then in 2011 a series of events—a fire and explosion at the facility and the release of fumes that caused the closure of many schools and offices—triggered the EPA to finally investigate the facility.

"The people of St. Croix must not suffer even more for a dying oil industry that contributes to the climate crisis. This community deserves better."

The refinery owes millions for its damage to the St. Croix community. In 2011, EPA ordered the refinery to pay $5.3 million in penalties, install $700 million worth of new pollution control and monitoring technology, and set aside nearly $4.9 million for projects to benefit the environment of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Before meeting its obligations under the order, Hovensa ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy, shifting responsibility to the new owner, Limetree Bay Ventures. The closure of the refinery had a significant economic impact on St. Croix, since the refinery employed many local residents. Post-Hurricane Maria, the attraction to reopen the refinery as a way to jump-start St. Croix’s economy became stronger when the new investors arrived and with a fossil fuel-friendly Trump Administration in office.

The Trump Administration fast-tracked the reopening of the refinery. In November 2018, nearly seven years after the refinery stopped operating, Limetree applied to EPA for a plant-wide applicability limit “PAL” air permit to reactivate the facility. This permit would not require the facility to conform to new technology or update air pollution standards, which were based on old high-levels from peak Hovensa emissions data. At the Trump Administration’s urging, EPA issued the permit without adequate protections, despite acknowledging the local community is overburdened with pollution and would suffer disproportionate impacts from reopening the refinery.

With a new Administration, now is the time to act. The Biden Administration recently renewed the Nation’s commitment to address environmental injustices by signing Executive Order 13990, which requires agencies to reconsider actions taken under the Trump Administration that undermine environmental justice and climate change goals. The Limetree air permit is the prime example of an EPA action in dire need of reversal. As outlined in a petition for review filed on February 3 before the Environmental Appeals Board, the EPA has already identified this community as one that has suffered disproportionate impacts, yet nothing in the permit protects the community from harmful air pollution from the refinery.

From agrarian colonization to heavy industry, this community has experienced immense environmental degradation for the benefit of others. The people of St. Croix must not suffer even more for a dying oil industry that contributes to the climate crisis. This community deserves better. St. Croix deserves sustainable economic development, healthier solutions, a just energy transition, and the opportunity to meaningfully engage in the decision-making process. Any outcome must prioritize justice and equity, be led by those impacted the most, and adequately address environmental injustices.

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