Op-ed: Learning From the Lessons of the Past About Oil Refineries

Limetree Oil Refinery

It is almost one year since we were laid bare and torn asunder by Irma and Maria. So devastating were their combined effects that still today the chorus of rebuilding echoes through the radio stations and shared on various social media platforms. We continue to give “Much Thanks” for the people and ideas involved in our rebuilding of our home, the Virgin Islands.

Presently before the 32nd Legislature for consideration is one possibility of stabilizing our tourist dependent industry. We know that the past is the past. However, the past has had equally horrific effects on our environment and our families still to this day. Our actions today create consequences that will be held accountable by our future generations.

Once again, the Virgin Islands of the United States’ community is faced with accepting or rejecting a new proposal to reengage in the process of oil refining. Do we realize oil refineries release toxic air pollution, which leads to communities with abnormal rates of asthma, bronchitis, cancer, reproductive problems, and abnormal development of the brain and nervous system in children?

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If you do the research, you too will find how living near refineries contributes to chronic conditions. Do you recall between September and December 2010, the emissions from HOVENSA in the form of “ground flares and oil spray?” All these pollutants covered the nearby air, water, vegetation and homes with contaminants.

Pollutants made their way onto plant life, into cisterns, onto cars, and into the lungs of residents. Central High students, staff, residents and animals in the area experienced respiratory, skin and other disorders. Just because St. Thomas and St. John are forty plus miles in the distance does not mean we too were not affected. What are the long-term effects of breathing in and drinking these pollutants?

“Children are disproportionately exposed to the emissions and resulting health threats from refineries. Additionally, people of color, including African Americans and Hispanic Americans, have a higher cancer risk from toxic air emissions from refineries than the average risk for the national population, as do adults living below the poverty level.” Earth Justice

After two People’s Agenda town meetings held on St. Croix in November of 2010, “The People’s Agenda 2011,” developed and made available a survey for distribution. The objective was to collect, document and develop data from neighborhoods and the community at large as to their health and environmental experiences.

This step was imperative to assist our community in collecting the empirical data that has been fifty years absent from these discussions. How better to resolve some of the “health issues” that are affecting the quality of life and productivity of the good people of St. Croix and ultimately the entire Virgin Islands?

In 2011, citizens of St. Croix signed petitions and along with The People’s Agenda 2011 distributed petitions to the Governor, members of the 29th Legislature, the Delegate to Congress, and the U.S. Department of the Interior. We demanded EPA include measures not limited to: 1. Immediate testing and evaluation of air quality 2. Providing medical evaluation/treatment 3. Protective equipment such as gas masks 4. Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) evacuation training for all schools, businesses and neighborhoods within a certain radius of HOVENSA 5.

Immediate testing and evaluation for substances and chemicals that may be found in air, water and soil due to emissions:
1,3-Butadiene, Acetone, Arsenic, Asbestos, Benzene, Benzidine, Beryllium, Bis(chloromethyl) Ether, Cadmium, Chromium, Ethylene Oxide, Nickel, Radon, Sulfur Mustard, Sulfur Trioxide & Sulfuric Acid, Thorium, Vinyl Chloride, 1,2 Dibromoethane, 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane, 1,2-Dichloroethane, 1,3 Dichloropropenes, 1,4-Dioxane, 3,3′-Dichlorobenzidine, Acrylamide, Acrylonitrile, Bromodichloromethane, Carbon Tetrachloride, Chloroform, Cobalt DDT, DDE, DDD, Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), Dichlorobenzenes, Formaldehyde, Hexachlorobenzene, Hexachloroethane, Hydrazines, Methylene Chloride, Mirex & Chlordecone, n-Nitrosodi-n-propylamine, n-Nitrosodimethylamine, Naphthalene, 1-Methylnapthalene, 2-Methylnapthalen, Nickel, Nitrobenzene, Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs), Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Polycyclic Aromatic, Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Selenium, Tetrachloroethylene (PERC), Toxaphene, Trichloroethylene (TCE)

As we know today, the building of the HESS refinery came at a significant environmental price. First, destroying the largest mangrove lagoon on St. Croix. Secondly, four times the amount of the Exxon Valdez’s leaking crude oil and its byproducts has extensively contaminated the aquifer. The third factor was the obvious emissions.

From the building of the refinery to its closing, HESS received many billions of Virgin Islands dollars in tax breaks and other benefits. As good as the refinery was for profits made, residents of the Virgin Islands paid some of the highest rates for petroleum products while the largest refinery sat on our shores. Where can the people of the Virgin Islands see how many billions of dollars were returned to the Virgin Islands’ coffers on the collection of export taxes on all our petroleum products?

Since HESS’s operation on our soil, how much compensation has the Virgin Islands community or the Virgin Islands Government received for the medical treatment of cancer, birth defects and other chronic conditions like asthma? If no compensation has been received in whole or in part for the injuries to our community, what policies will our lawmakers put in place to protect its constituents from more illness and deaths caused by the known emissions put out by oil refining or even from WAPA?

In 2010 British Petroleum polluted the Gulf of Mexico with more than 200 million gallons of crude oil over a period of 87 days. The initial oil rig explosion killed 11 people and injured 17 others. Sixteen thousand miles of coastline has been affected, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Even though the gushing well was capped in July 2010, oil is still washing up on shores.

Did you know over 8,000 animals (birds, turtles, mammals) were reported dead just 6 months after the spill, including many that were already on the endangered species list? Currently, to treat the oil spill, BP is burning oil in a contained area on the surface of the water, which has negative effects on the environment.

Today, BP is responsible for close to $40 billion in fines, cleanup costs, and settlements as a result of the 2010 oil spill. As well as an additional $16 billion due to violations of the Clean Water Act. This is the biggest oil spill in U.S. history and as of 2017, the Gulf was still polluted with oil.

Powers and duties of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources as it relates to this topic. (a) The Department shall administer and enforce all laws pertaining to: (1) fish and wildlife, trees and vegetation and water resources including the protection of safe drinking water; (2) air pollution and water pollution; (3) coastal zone management, coastal lands and off-shore islands and cays; (4) environmental protection; (5) land survey and development and building permits; and (b) It is the duty of the Department, and it is empowered to: (1) administer and supervise the Planning Office; Provided, That the Department shall be the official planning agency of the Government of the Virgin Islands and the state planning agency for the purposes of federal assistance programs; (2) foster, promote and undertake programs and projects for the conservation and development of the natural resources of the United States Virgin Islands; (3) foster, promote and undertake programs and projects for the restoration and preservation of the scenic beauty of the United States Virgin Islands, including the identification, preservation and maintenance of scenic overlooks; (4) provide for the conservation, maintenance and management of United States Virgin Islands wildlife, the resources thereof, and its habitat, and to make investigations to determine the effects of domestic sewage, industrial wastes and other polluting substances on wildlife and means of alleviating dangerous and undesirable effects of such pollution; (5) establish reasonable impact fees as a condition of approval of all development projects with a construction cost above $500,000. (6) employ such experts, scientists, consultants, technicians or other specially qualified persons as may be necessary for the proper and effective exercise and performance of its powers, duties and functions; (7) cooperate with any other agencies, organizations or persons, public or private, in undertakings designed to promote the objectives of conservation or development of natural resources, or of any other of its authorized areas of responsibility; (8) coordinate the various fields of its authorized activity through harmonious planning, development and maintenance; (9) perform such functions as may be required by federal law in order to participate in federally-aided projects or programs and serve as the state agency of the Government of the United States Virgin Islands for participation in all programs of the United States Government relating to its authorized fields of activity; (10) with the approval of the Governor, issue rules and regulations, not inconsistent with the provisions of this chapter, as may be necessary or appropriate for the implementation and effectuation of its powers, duties and functions; (11) make recommendations to the Governor for his submission to the Legislature with respect to its authorized fields of activity; (12) administer the laws relating to construction and repairs under building permits, provide a building inspection service, and administer and enforce the Building Code.

Ultimately, the Government of the Virgin Islands of the United States is responsible for ensuring that the people are protected from agencies and companies that create toxic by-products on a daily basis. These procedures should be the responsibility of the government and not the agency or company responsible for generating the toxic substances to ensure that any incident is treated with appropriate urgency. This also means that the Government of the Virgin Islands and its agents will be held responsible for any dereliction of duties named above.

The People of the Virgin Islands are encouraged to continue engaging in directing the course of our collective political future with solution-oriented discussions and activities. It is time to revisit the suggested sustainable renewable solutions presented by members of our community when HOVENSA shut its oil refining doors. We must ultimately obtain accountability from those elected and appointed to public service. In Peace,

Editor’s note: Caroline A. Browne is the co-manager of Guinea Grass Ventures LLC, which provides various services to Guinea Grass Ventures Trust, owner and steward of the diverse landscape of 6.2 acres of semi-tropical forest made up of various indigenous and native trees, wildlife, flowers and fauna on St. John.

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