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EPA hits troubled Virgin Islands oil refinery with a violation notice

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3 days ago Darryl Fears, Juliet Eilperin
a view of a factory: Installations of the Limetree Bay petroleum refinery in St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017 when they were owned by Hovensa. (REUTERS/Alvin Baez) © Alvin Baez/Reuters Installations of the Limetree Bay petroleum refinery in St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017 when they were owned by Hovensa. (REUTERS/Alvin Baez)

A giant oil and gas refinery was served with a “notice of violation” by the Environmental Protection Agency following two major accidents that released noxious fumes and a chemical-filled vapor cloud over nearby neighborhoods in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The EPA said Monday that Limetree Bay Refining was served with the notice because the company failed to operate five monitoring stations to gauge the air quality around its plant, a major source of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The company also failed to operate a meteorological tower.

“A major source of air pollution, such as Limetree Bay, is subject to controls under its air permits,” the agency said in a statement. “Limetree Bay may be liable for civil penalties and required to take actions to correct the violations.”

The island where it rained oil

The company has 30 days to request a video conference to discuss or contest the notice of violation.

In a statement Monday, the firm contested EPA’s allegations.

“We strongly disagree with the claim that we are in violation of any ambient air monitoring requirement," it said. "The former refinery operator was required to perform area monitoring, but that requirement was linked exclusively to their burning of sulfur-containing residual fuel oil, which Limetree Bay does not do.”

The plant’s previous owner, Hovensa, stopped operating five sulfur dioxide monitoring stations when it shut down in 2012 in the wake of financial problems and a multimillion-dollar settlement with EPA over environmental violations. At the time, according to the notice, Hovensa pledged to reactivate the monitors if it restarted.

A Limetree employee informed the EPA on Feb. 16 — more than two weeks after the plant started running again — that it was not operating the air monitors, the notice added.

Short-term exposures to high levels of sulfur dioxide can damage the human respiratory system. People with asthma, especially children, are vulnerable.

“EPA issued this notice of violation to protect the people who live near and work at this refinery, and we have also deployed a team of experts to St. Croix and are working to assess Limetree Bay’s compliance with environmental laws,” said Walter Mugdan, the acting chief of EPA Region 2, which oversees the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In conjunction with the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources and U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health, EPA is investigating the extent of the accidental release of gas, its composition, duration and causes.

The EPA also ordered additional inspections of the facility “over the course of the coming months” to focus on compliance with various environmental statutes.

a man standing on a plant: Sonia Rivera, 53, and her husband, Errol, 55, check their new vegetable plants planted in their backyard in the Clifton Hill neighborhood in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, last month. Limetree Bay refinery is under investigation by the EPA after a Feb. 4 flare that spewed oil droplets over nearby homes contaminating at least 63 cisterns with petroleum. The Riveras' garden was destroyed by the oil droplets. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) © Salwan Georges/The Washington Post Sonia Rivera, 53, and her husband, Errol, 55, check their new vegetable plants planted in their backyard in the Clifton Hill neighborhood in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, last month. Limetree Bay refinery is under investigation by the EPA after a Feb. 4 flare that spewed oil droplets over nearby homes contaminating at least 63 cisterns with petroleum. The Riveras' garden was destroyed by the oil droplets. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

“Limetree Bay is in a community predominantly made up of people of color and low-income populations who are already disproportionately affected by environmental burdens,” the statement said. “These disproportionate burdens present environmental justice concerns, which are a priority for EPA.”

Within days after the plant reopening this year, a pressure release valve triggered by an accident on Feb. 4 sent a fine mist of oil and water floating over hundreds of homes that neighbor the facility. The mist rained oil on rooftops, home gardens, car hoods and cisterns that residents rely on for drinking and washing.

Less than two months later, it emitted sulfuric gases that forced some schools and a coronavirus vaccination site to close. One resident, Sonya Rivera, said “a foul, funky smell” descended over her home. Others said a stench of rotten eggs or sewage lingered for more than a week.

In its statement, the EPA said it relies on refineries to measure sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere so that it can better control a population’s exposure to the gas.

a view of a city: The Limetree Bay refinery is seen from above in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, on March 18. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) © Salwan Georges/The Washington Post The Limetree Bay refinery is seen from above in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, on March 18. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

“These are serious violations and speak to Limetree’s lack of concern over their negative impact on the St. Croix community,” said Jennifer Valiulis, who directs the St. Croix Environmental Association. “These sulfur dioxide monitors are critical to detecting the toxic emissions that closed schools and have been making people ill. We want to know why Limetree failed to operate these monitors. We are grateful to the EPA for examining these issues at Limetree and taking action.”

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