It didn’t take long for the Environmental Protection Agency official to discover the problem. It was 7:10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The EPA employee who had been deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands to investigate an accident-plagued refinery emailed colleagues to give them the news: “there is oil on my windshield.”
On Friday, the Biden administration shut the plant down
, citing an “imminent” threat to people’s health after several recent accidents contaminated St. Croix’s drinking water and left hundreds of people sick. In its 45-page order
, the agency described the pollution’s impact in the words of its own employees who had come to stop it.
“The odor I briefly encountered was overwhelming and nauseating,” recounted another EPA staffer, who was coordinating the agency’s response on the island and inhaled gasoline-like fumes May 6. “I normally am suited up with respiratory protection and other [personal protective equipment] prior to being exposed to something like this.”
“It means that voices of the people have finally been elevated to the point that they’re being heard,” said Frandelle Gerard, who directs the Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism Foundation and has criticized the refinery.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency took the extraordinary step after Limetree Bay showered oil on local residents twice, spewed sulfuric gases into the surrounding area and released hydrocarbons into the air.
“This already overburdened community has suffered through at least four recent incidents that have occurred at the facility, and each had an immediate and significant health impact on people and their property,” Regan said. “EPA will not hesitate to use its authority to enforce the law and protect people from dangerous pollution where they work, live, and play.”
On April 23, a sulfur recovery unit failed to capture hydrogen sulfide that was at one point 562 times the federally allowed limit. The agency concluded that during the first accident in February, a “knockout drum” that would have normally tamped down fiery oil droplets probably “were not designed with sufficient capacity.”
The move marked a sharp turn of events for a tourist hot spot that has nevertheless suffered the harsh impacts of industrial development for years. Since February, many residents have struggled to breathe at times as the stench of pollution invaded their homes, schools and offices.
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