The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice have asked a federal court to transfer obligations in a consent decree relating to the Limetree Bay oil refinery from its prior, bankrupt owner to its current owner. The EPA has also opened an investigation into a flaring incident last month at the refinery, on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. More broadly, agency enforcement officials have requested some information concerning the refinery’s restart, its current operating status, air pollution, monitoring and reporting, compliance certifications, and other possible accidental releases.
According to a news release from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the pollution-plagued refinery, one of the world’s biggest oil-processing facilities, ceased refining in 2012. Its prior owner went bankrupt in 2015 and the refinery started processing again in February. According to a news report this week, however, a handful of the company’s top officials are fleeing—yet another incident of executive turnover since the Limetree CEO was replaced last fall.
Meanwhile, St. Croix residents are frustrated and perplexed by the failure of government officials to explain why the refinery was allowed to restart without meeting the requirements in the consent decree that EPA asked a court to approve just yesterday, and why the consent decree modification was left unchanged from its version as negotiated with the Trump Administration.
“EPA has opened this investigation none too soon,” said Jennifer Valiulis, executive director of SEA. “They need to get to the bottom of what is going on. And if the agency is serious about its commitment to environmental justice, it needs to take decisive action to protect this overburdened community and St. Croix’s fragile ecosystem.”
EPA’s original 2011 consent decree, with Hovensa, LLC, the refinery’s prior owner, was intended to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. It ordered Hovensa to pay a $5.4 million fine and $700 million for new pollution controls. The current move by the Biden administration asks the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands to apply that agreement to the facility’s current owners, Limetree Bay Refining, LLC and Limetree Bay Terminals, LLC. But, the EPA has yet to provide evidence that the refinery’s current owner and operator, Limetree Bay Refining LLC, ever has been a party to the 2011 consent decree, when the refinery restarted operations or even today.
Earlier this year, St. Croix Environmental Association (SEA), the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, the Vermont Law School Environmental Justice Clinic and NRDC filed a petition for reconsideration of one of Limetree Bay’s air pollution permits with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last month, EPA withdrew this “plantwide applicability permit.”
On St. Croix, 27% of residents near the facility live below the poverty line and are a community of color. The facility’s reopening has been complicated by delays, corroded equipment, a fire, unscheduled flares, an airborne chemical and oil release, and an oil spill.