Are we reading an epilogue of the legacy of what was once the largest oil refinery in the Western Hemisphere or a prelude to something big? According to the perennial optimists, a new chapter in the economic history of the USVI will be written as we are soon going to experience the revitalization of a big industry on St. Croix. They say if certain doors are kept opened, we will have another giant company to replace the now defunct Hovensa oil refinery which is located on the on the southern shores.
The idea that big business could thrive once again sounds appealing. A stroke of a pen can make this happen. Unfortunately, not everyone is convinced that the opening of a new oil refinery will be an economic boost for the Big Island. It is easy for the cynics to rant about the disadvantages of such an industry. Let’s reflect, though, on what were the benefits of having the largest private employer in the territory.
There is no argument that since the opening of Hess in 1966, educational opportunities for locals have enhanced. After graduation of the first class of local workers, pipe fitters, instrument technicians and electricians, the Hess Vocational Center was used as St. Croix Central High School. Thousands of locals that trained at the center were able to get the highest paying jobs on the island. Hundreds of scholarships were granted to high school graduates, millions were spent on the Process Technology Program to prepare our students to work in the oil refinery business, and VI residents of all ages had an opportunity to acquire technical skills.
Hovensa will certainly be remembered as a dominant force. Hess/Hovic/Hovensa provided financial contributions to almost all charities in the USVI. After major natural disasters, the oil refinery and employees offered maximum support in the form of technical assistance, materials and labor. The help they gave after a hurricane made recovery easier for all the people affected.
Through the donations from the oil refinery, public safety facilities and learning institutions were constructed. We may have had a state-of-the-art hospital and burn center today if certain politicians did not snubbed their noses at Hess. Nevertheless, the generosity of the oil refinery has not gone unappreciated by most in the community.
Some employees of the refinery have always been involved in various community projects such as beach clean-ups, street clean-ups, education programs and health programs. They volunteered their expertise to individuals and our community. The important role of being a good cooperative citizen was exemplified when WAPA received technical assistance with spare parts and sometimes with labor.
In the 60s and 70s, the expansion of Hess resulted in the growth of our infrastructure and dirt tracks developed into highways. Small clothing stores became part of shopping malls, grocery chains formed, and employment in the private sector expanded along with increased wages and better housing. Although there is still room for further improvement of JFL hospital, there have been positive changes at our medical facilities and more quality physicians are now available.
We were fortunate to have had a flourishing economy due to the operation of one of the largest refinery in the world. However, there have been disappointments with agreements made between the oil refinery and the government of the USVI. No deal is ever perfect. There are many questions that must be answered before another major company operates on a relatively small island. Residents of the territory, especially those living on St. Croix, have a right to express their concerns about health, environment and safety.
Perhaps, some of us are less critical than others of the effects that Hovensa has had on our community. We are eager to have a new company that would treat the community with more respect. A symbiotic relationship between the VI government and Atlantic Basin Refinery Inc. (ABR) is possible only if Hovensa is sold. At this moment, the only prospective buyer is ABR. What chance will it get to demonstrate a willingness to have dialogues with the community, address its concerns and secure a brighter future for the VI?
Indeed, Hovensa was a blessing prior to 2012. Nonetheless, it is time to say farewell to an old company and welcome a new company. Our government cannot collect revenues from a metallic junk yard. It is time to build!
Verdel L. Petersen, St. Croix, USVI