EPA withdraws Limetree permit

The Environmental Protection Agency has dispatched a team of experts to St. Croix to investigate the Limetree Bay refinery’s alleged violation of the Clean Air Act, according to an agency spokesman.

Following months of complaints by residents on St. Croix that Limetree Bay refinery has been spewing noxious chemicals over residential neighborhoods, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that it has issued a notice of violation for “alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.”

“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,” EPA acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan said in a statement.

According to the EPA, Limetree has failed to operate five sulfur dioxide monitors in the surrounding communities, and an associated weather tower on facility grounds.

“Many residents are justifiably concerned about recent incidents at this refinery and have questioned if it is operating in accordance with requirements. In fact, the measurement of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is key as it helps us assess air quality, and the data are used to oversee regulated facilities to ensure that appropriate control measures are in place to reduce people’s exposure to the gas,” Mugdan said.

The notice found that Limetree has failed to operate the five ambient monitoring stations — two to the west of the refinery and three to the north, “as required by EPA’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration and other regulations,” according to the EPA news release. “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. Limetree Bay may be liable for civil penalties and required to take actions to correct the violations specified in the Notice of Violation issued to it on April 30.”

Limetree Bay Terminals spokeswoman Erica Parsons provided The Daily News with a statement from the company Monday.

“We have received a Notice of Violation from the EPA related to the operation of monitors to detect sulfur dioxide in the ambient air. We strongly disagree with the claim that we are in violation of any ambient air monitoring requirement,” according to the statement. “We meet all the monitoring requirements of our existing permit(s). While the PAL [Plantwide Applicability Limit] permit issued in December 2020 required area monitoring, that permit was withdrawn by the EPA in March before going into effect. 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.”

According to the EPA notice, Limetree had operated the five sulfur dioxide ambient air monitors prior to the refinery shutdown in 2012, and company officials assured federal regulators that they would be used if and when the facility reopened. Limetree began restarting refinery operations in September, but EPA personnel confirmed during a site visit on April 30 that Limetree has not been operating the monitors.

Short-term exposure to elevated levels of sulfur dioxide “can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult,” and people with asthma and children are particularly sensitive to the effects, according to the EPA, which said regulations to reduce the emissions of sulfur dioxide “and pollutants that form sulfur oxides help protect public health as well as aid state and local governments in meeting national air quality standards.”

Limetree has 30 days to discuss the notice with the EPA in a video conference, after which time “EPA is authorized to take further actions in response to the violations,” according to the EPA statement.

Government House issued a press release Thursday saying that Bryan had met with the newly named Chief Executive Officer of Limetree Bay, Jeff Rinker, and “expressed his concerns with the gas flaring event from the refinery and stressed the importance of transparency.”

“We have confirmed with the executive team that last Thursday’s event was of sulfur dioxide, which was triggered by excess hydrogen sulfide being sent to the flare for combustion,” Bryan said in a statement. “We have been further assured by the Limetree team that an in-depth investigation of the cause of the incident is in process for reporting to all regulatory agencies and that the refinery will keep the community informed of the findings.”

Bryan added that “as an administration, our focus is to work with Limetree to ensure the safety of the Crucian community and that the U.S. Virgin Islands receives its fair share from a successful refinery operation.”

The Daily News emailed Government House Communications Director Richard Motta Jr. on Monday to offer Bryan an opportunity to comment on the EPA’s announcement. Motta did not respond.

V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett’s spokesman Michael McQuerry also did not respond to a request for comment.

The EPA has established a new website specifically for information related to the investigation into Limetree Bay refinery’s operations, located at: epa.gov/vi/limetree-bay-terminals-and-limetree-bay-refining-llc.

— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email scarlson@dailynews.vi.