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Residents File Lawsuits Against Limetree Bay Oil Refinery

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June 1, 2021

After a May 12 malfunction at the Limetree Bay oil refinery in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands rained oil down on the surrounding area, hundreds of residents have filed at least three lawsuits seeking restitution for damages.

According to Reuters, a malfunctioning coker unit caused the emergency burning of feedstocks, a process known as flaring, which caused oil to spray on nearby neighborhoods. Limetree Bay CEO Jeffery Rinker also pointed to the coker unit as the most likely culprit, saying a bypass valve had been mysteriously – and mistakenly – left unlocked.

Limetree Bay’s initial statement simply said that an “upset in the refinery” had triggered the incident. The company warned locals not to drink the rainwater they had been collecting because it may have been contaminated, and said that it was working to bring the facility to a “safe, stable condition.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) then stepped in and suspended the refinery’s operations for at least 60 days, “until the facility can operate safely [and] legally.”

Unfortunately, this was not the first such mishap at Limetree Bay. It also showered oil on residents’ homes in early February. Armando Munoz, who lives three miles from the refinery, told The Washington Post, “When it rains, it doesn’t wash out. It’s in all the plants we have, avocado trees, and breadfruit trees, and fruit trees and regular household plants.” (The Post notes that the refinery had been shuttered after a rash of lawsuits alleging environmental violations, only to be reopened by the Trump administration.)

Then in April, and again in early May, noxious odors from the refinery forced three St. Croix schools to close. The company said the refinery was releasing “light hydrocarbon odors” because of maintenance on its coker unit – the same malfunctioning unit that would spark the latest oil shower.

Residents reported feeling ill from the gases, and in April, the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) found that the refinery was releasing excess sulfur dioxide, caused by burning hydrogen sulfide. As a result, the EPA warned the company that it was violating the Clean Air Act.

Two days after the most recent incident, EPA head Michael Regan tweeted, “Today, I ordered Limetree Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands to immediately pause all operations until the facility can operate safely & legally. @EPA will not hesitate to step in to protect communities disproportionately burdened by pollution.”

Regan added, “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. Unacceptable.”

Now this overburdened community is fighting back, with hundreds uniting to take legal action against Limetree Bay. A class action lawsuit filed by Lee J. Rohn & Associates quickly amassed 200 plaintiffs, alleging personal injuries and property damage due to “unreasonable odors, gases, vapors, and fumes because of Defendants’ conduct in operating the Limetree Bay Refinery.”

In addition to seeking compensation for adversely impacted plaintiffs, the lawsuit demands the establishment of “a medical monitoring program… for the continual screening and detection of illnesses, diseases, or disease processes necessitated by the exposure to toxic wastes released by Defendants, and a diminution in the value of their homes and other real properties.”

According to Abbelle Bakr, the President of the New Horizon Women’s Democratic Club of St. Croix, and a resident of St. Croix for over 20 years, the medical issues caused or worsened by the refinery are a legitimate concern. “Residents have been complaining of ear, nose, and throat issues caused by noxious gases,” Bakr said.

She added that she has been investigating a possible link between the refinery and rising lung and breast cancer cases in the area, and that she has heard from many workers that the refinery was being operated poorly.

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