On Monday, Feb. 13, the Environmental Justice Clinic (EJC) at Vermont Law and Graduate School filed a motion to intervene in a case in the United States 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals concerning permits for a shuttered oil refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The EJC filed the motion on behalf of its clients, St. Croix Environmental Association, Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. The community of Saint Croix is exposed to significant industrial pollution. The case, Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation, LLLP v United States Environmental Protection Agency is on appeal from the Federal District Court of the Virgin Islands, and revolves around Clean Air Act permits required for the refinery to commence operations.
The EJC supports the EPA’s determination which requires a Prevention of Serious Deterioration (PSD) permit requiring the applicant to install the best available control technology. The EJC is intervening to ensure that the court can hear from the community impacted by public health and safety threats as it considers the legal status and future of the refinery.
More than 70 percent of St. Croix’s population is Black, and about 22 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line. The Virgin Islands are a U.S. Territory; residents cannot vote in Presidential elections and do not have a voting representative in the Congress.
"Complying with basic environmental protection requirements is the bare minimum for responsibly operating a facility like this mammoth refinery, and recent history shows why this is so necessary.” Jennifer Valiuis, executive director of St. Croix Environmental Association said.
Located in Christiansted, Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, the refinery was built in 1966 and operated by HOVENSA, a joint venture between Hess Corporation and PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company. In 2008, it was discovered that Hovensa spilled more than 42 million barrels of oil—more than four times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez—into the groundwater of St. Croix.
The refinery closed in 2012 after years of losses and major EPA penalties, including a $5 million fine and a consent decree requiring Hovensa to spend more than $700 million to install new pollution controls following major accidents.
Hovensa never made the improvements; instead, by shuttering the facility, it did not need to comply with the consent decree.
Limetree Bay Terminals, LLC, purchased the facility to use as a storage terminal, until 2018, when it announced the intention to restart refining operations. The current owner is Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation.
The EPA, under former President Donald Trump, aided Limetree’s application to operate the refinery by treating it as the reactivation of an “idled” facility, rather than a “new source,” which contradicted long-standing EPA Reactivation Policy and PSD permitting.
The community of St. Croix was severely impacted by the refinery’s new operation, including the release of toxic hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide which required the evacuation of refinery employees.
In February and May 2021, oil from the refinery fell from the sky, causing widespread contamination on people’s homes, gardens, and local drinking water resources. These incidents resulted in major disruptions, including the closure of schools and government offices, mobilization of the Virgin Islands National Guard and Fire Service. Local residents suffered from noxious odors, severe headaches and nausea.
In May 2021 the EPA used emergency measures to shut down the refinery and reversed its 2018 decision to not require a PSD permit.
“The EPA absolutely made the right decision by cracking down on this refinery’s dismal pattern of pollution,” Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “The neighborhoods near the refinery have suffered enough harm, and the plant should remain shut down for good. The EPA is finally taking the risks posed by this facility seriously, and we need to stop the company from starting up that dirty refinery without a new permit.”
The EPA reviewed the refinery’s maintenance logs and discovered signs of inadequate maintenance that caused the series of accidents when the refinery began operations in late 2020.
The EPA now considers the refinery a new, stationary source of pollution and as such requires a PSD permit from Port Hamilton.
“It's easy to forget that when Limetree started the refinery, thousands of people were sickened by their emissions, schools and covid vaccination centers were closed, and oil rained down onto people's homes and into cisterns. We are greatly disappointed that Port Hamilton won’t agree to even this very basic permit and fear that this is an indicator of their lack of concern for the health and safety of St. Croix's people." Jennifer Valiuis said.
This permit is crucial to protecting the public health and environment of St. Croix, as it requires the applicant to have installed the best available control technology, an air quality analysis, an additional impacts analysis, and public involvement. Part of the permitting process requires the applicant to analyze the impact emissions from a polluting source will have on nearby communities. These are all crucial mechanisms to ensure the safety of people who live around the refinery and the whole island.
“We want the community surrounded by the refinery to have all the protections that federal law makes available. The community deserves these protections which Congress promised them when the Clean Air Amendments were passed in 1990.” Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club National Clean Air Team, said.
While the EPA seems to be primarily interested in the sanctity of its administrative process, the addition of yet another source of industrial pollution poses a serious threat to health in the surrounding community. By intervening, the EJC seeks to assure that the concerns of the community actually impacted by the unreliable non-compliant refinery are heard by the court as it considers the legal status and future of the refinery.
About Vermont Law and Graduate School: Vermont Law and Graduate School, a private, independent institution, is home to the nation’s premier environmental law program. The school features innovative experiential programs and is home to the Environmental Law Center, South Royalton Legal Clinic, Environmental Advocacy Clinic, Energy Clinic, Food and Agriculture Clinic, Environmental Justice Clinic, and Center for Justice Reform. For more information, visit www.vermontlaw.edu and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.