Commodities (Mar 08, 2021 12:11AM ET)
By Laura Sanicola
(Reuters) – Earlier this month, Loren Hughes, a longtime resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands, noticed specks of an oily substance covering his home, as well as those owned by his neighbors.
For Hughes, 46, it brought back memories of the last time St. Croix’s long-idled refinery was operating, roughly a decade earlier. The refinery restarted last month, bringing back hundreds of jobs – but for nearby residents, they say it also brought difficulty breathing, headaches and watery eyes.
“Sometimes it’s like sulfur or rotten eggs. The other smells are unexplainable,” Hughes said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants the refinery’s owners, Limetree Bay Ventures, to increase its monitoring of air quality due to emissions affecting the nearby neighborhoods, but the owners have so far balked.
St. Croix is a long way from the U.S. mainland. But the battle over the refinery’s pollution on this Caribbean island and tourist resort is one of the first tests of how the Biden administration will prioritize environmental justice.
As the United States has become the world’s largest fossil fuel producer, opponents have grown more vocal about how many projects, particularly in the petrochemical and refining industries, are situated near low-income areas with large minority populations.
The Biden administration has vowed to make sure new energy projects do not unfairly harm those communities, such as the ones living near the refinery. About 90 million Americans live within 30 miles (50 km) of at least one refinery, according to environmental group Earthjustice.
“This situation offers the first opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to stand up for the environmental community, and take a strong public health and climate chance stance concerning fossil fuels,” said John Walke, senior attorney and director of clean air programs with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
After a decade idle, the Limetree Bay refinery restarted this year with plans to process up to 200,000 barrels of oil a day into gasoline and other fuels. Limetree Bay Ventures also received strict conditions from the U.S. EPA, which told the company that it had to add enhanced air quality monitoring.
Limetree Bay, backed by private equity firms EIG and Arclight Capital, is appealing that directive, saying the monitors are not necessary and their operating cost is not Limetree’s responsibility.
A Reuters examination of publicly available EPA data shows the refinery is also currently not monitoring sulfur dioxide levels near the plant, as required. Limetree declined several requests for comment on this issue.
A spokesperson for EIG representing the refinery told Reuters it is committed to excellent environmental performance and considers it fundamental to the company’s success. Arclight did not respond to requests for comment.
St. Croix residents are torn between dealing with the effects of pollution and the benefits of high-paying jobs that offset the loss of tourism dollars amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you are talking about people who are poor, they’re not going to criticize the refinery that gives them jobs,” said Virginia Clairmont, a community activist who meets with company representatives quarterly.
A 2020 study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch concluded that living within 30 miles of an oil refinery was associated with increased risk of multiple cancer types. (Study: https://