Environmental Justice

Seeking Environmental Justice in the U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Croix’s Battle with an Oil Refinery that Refuses to Die

St. Croix residents deal with pollution from an outdated oil refinery

Amelia Keyes

July 17, 2022

St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, sits in the Caribbean Sea just southeast of Puerto Rico. Rugged green mountains on its northern shore jut out of the azure sea then settle into rolling hills. The island’s southern side boasts lush flatlands that were once subdivided into sugar and cotton plantations. At the center of the island’s southern coast sits the Limetree Bay Oil Refinery, a metal tangle of tanks and towers that unceremoniously interrupt the green and blue scenery.

Since it opened in 1967, the refinery has become a staple of the St. Croix landscape, and it holds its own curious type of aesthetic value. When Frandelle Gerard, a lifelong resident of St. Croix, was young, her mother designed their family dining room to feature a large picture window overlooking the refinery. At night, its lights and flares lit up the island sky as if it were New York City. Ms. Gerard’s mother loved New York, and she enjoyed the reminder of the city’s transfixing magic.

Later, Ms. Gerard moved to Frederiksted, a town on St. Croix’s western end downwind of the refinery. In Frederiksted, you don’t just see the refinery, you feel it. The refinery crept into Ms. Gerard’s neighborhood and into her home—through the smells that were sometimes so heavy she could taste them, and the kid in the neighborhood whose mysterious asthma just kept getting worse.

The refinery has infected the lives of St. Croix’s forty thousand residents (known as “Crucians”) in slow, day-by-day ways, and in apocalyptic, hard-to-believe ways. Between 1978 and 2008, the refinery released almost 42 million gallons of petroleum products into the island’s only aquifer—a disaster four times greater than the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. In 2011, a series of explosions released toxic fumes that forced the closure of schools and businesses. Then, in the spring of 2021, the sky rained oil. Technological breakdowns at the refinery caused oil droplets to spew across the island, coating hundreds of homes and vehicles and contaminating vegetable gardens and the rainwater cisterns that residents rely on for drinking water.

The refinery’s dominance and its environmental neglect are supported by powers that are largely distant from the island . . . [b]ut the costs are paid by St. Croix’s predominantly Black and Hispanic residents, . . . overlooked by mainland American residents and media.

After the latest disaster, which created widespread recognition that the refinery was not fit to operate, the refinery shut down. Its owners quickly filed for bankruptcy; a move that will make the process of getting recourse for the islanders’ injuries longer and more difficult. And in December 2021, as Crucians continued waiting for someone to clear the layers of oil coating their drinking water cisterns, a U.S. bankruptcy judge in the Southern District of Texas approved the refinery’s sale to a new owner. The refinery is now expected to reopen.

For decades, the St. Croix refinery has fueled U.S. consumers’ cars and homes. The refinery receives crude oil, often from Venezuela, and then sends motor gas and heating oil to markets in the Gulf Coast and New York. In 2011, the refinery was the second largest in the U.S. and one of the ten largest in the world, processing over 500,000 barrels of oil a day. These days, its economic prospects are less shiny—it has been eclipsed by more competitive refineries in Texas and Louisiana, and it relies on demand from a country that flirts with weaning itself off oil. And yet, as the latest bankruptcy sale shows, the refinery is not ready to die yet.

In its nearly-sixty-year life the refinery has profoundly affected St. Croix: altering its landscape, dominating its economy, shaping its demographics, and threatening the health of its residents. The refinery’s dominance and its environmental neglect are supported by powers that are largely distant from the island, including the Virgin Island’s territorial government on St. Thomas, as well as bankruptcy courts, corporate boardrooms, and federal government offices in the contiguous U.S. But the costs are paid by St. Croix’s predominantly Black and Hispanic residents, who are citizens of the U.S. and yet often overlooked by mainland American residents and media.