June 8, 2005 — Dean C. Plaskett, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said Wednesday he had not intended for the departments recently filed lawsuit against Hovensa and seven other companies to be battled in the press.
However, Plaskett noted that since word of the lawsuit — charging several companies on St. Croix with contributing to the destruction of the island's water table — had leaked out to the press the evening before, he deemed Wednesday's press release to be necessary.
The release was headlined, "Government Of The Virgin Islands Seeks Compensation For Damage To St. Croix's Natural Resources, Commissioner Dean C. Plaskett, Esq., Files Claim In Federal Court: Responsible Parties Should Compensate For Natural Resource Injuries."
Named as defendants are Century Alumina Company, Virgin Islands Alumina Company, St. Croix Alumina, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Alcoa World Alumina, Hovensa, Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corporation, and St. Croix Renaissance Group.
The charges in the 30-page-long suit range from negligence, being a public nuisance, and trespassing all the way to violations of the Oil Spill Prevention and Pollution Control Act and the Territorial Water Pollution Control Act.
The Source tried to contact all the defendants, but some of the companies are not listed in the phone book and may no longer exist.
Alexander Moorhead, Hovensa vice president, did release a statement after seeing DPNR's press release. In it he writes: "Hovensa is aware of this suit, which was filed one month ago. Hovensa believes that the suit against the company, which has only been operating the refinery since 1998, is unwarranted and inappropriate. The case has been referred to the company's attorneys who are preparing a vigorous defense of Hovensa against the allegations made by the commissioner. Ultimately, this suit will be decided in the District Court of the Virgin Islands based upon the law and the facts presented by the parties."
The press release from DPNR said its "claim is based upon unpermitted releases of pollutants to the environment from the Hovensa Oil Refinery and the former St. Croix Alumina facility in violation of territorial and federal law. While certain controlled releases are permitted from both facilities, this action claims that numerous unpermitted releases have resulted in injury to not only marine and coastal resources but also the destruction of a significant portion of St. Croix's Kingshill aquifer."
The suit claims that St. Croixs Kingshill aquifer is the largest productive source of groundwater in the Virgin Islands.
The press release states that as recently as the 1990s, the aquifer provided up to 31 percent of the public water supply for St. Croix.
Plaskett is quoted as saying, "Following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the availability of our groundwater prevented a serious water crisis on St. Croix. Currently, two of our public well fields in the Kingshill Aquifer are shut down as a result of contamination and numerous private and commercial wells are threatened."
To which Moorhead responded: "Relative to the DPNR commissioner's implication that well fields are shut down as a result of contamination from the refinery, wells were shut down in the 1980s as the result of contamination from leaking lubricating systems on the pumps in the wells. A report issued in 1983 by the Department of Conservation & Cultural Affairs, the predecessor agency of DPNR, stated, in part, 'One serious problem is the accumulation of lubricating oil in the wells at various points in the distribution system. Lubricating oil is leaking into the wells due to malfunctioning lubricating systems. In some wells in the Fairplain and Barren Spot well fields as much as eight feet of black oil was floating on top of the water in 1982.'"
Moorhead added, "The operation of these wells and the maintenance of the lubricating systems on the pumps in 1982 was the responsibility of the Department of Public Works."
Plaskett said in the release, "The territory is sending a clear message that polluters will be held accountable for damages to our territory's water resources and for harming our environment. The territory will ensure that these polluters no longer take our environment for granted and compensate the territory for damages to our natural resources."
According to Plaskett, under federal law, natural resource damage is the dollar value that is necessary to restore or replace injured natural resources of the territory. Injuries can be both ecological injuries to coastal waters, streams, lakes, wetlands, wildlife, and groundwater, and human use injuries such as the closure of a waterway to fishing, a beach to swimming, or an aquifer as a supply of drinking water.
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