Limetree Bay refinery agrees to resume air monitoring after EPA violation

The owners of the troubled Limetree Bay refinery in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands have agreed to resume sulfur dioxide monitoring, days after the U.S. EPA notified the company that it was in violation of the Clean Air Act. 

Reuters exclusively reported that the sulfur dioxide monitors near the refinery were not operating in March.

Recent incidents at the refinery released sulfur dioxide that prompted local school closures after students and staff reported feeling sick and forced some residents to shelter in their homes. Even short-term exposures to elevated levels of sulfur dioxide can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult, according to the EPA.

The 200,000-barrel-per-day Caribbean refinery restarted operations this year after idling for about a decade. The restart was delayed several times due to problems with refinery equipment. Since the facility reopened, nearby St. Croix residents have complained of breathing problems and headaches.

Limetree Bay said on Wednesday it was reinstating the five sulfur dioxide air monitors near the facility voluntarily, adding that it is not required to operate them under existing permits.

"We are committed to being a responsible part of the St. Croix community and believe this investment will help build trust in our operations,” Limetree Bay Chief Executive Jeff Rinker said.

On Monday the company rebuffed the EPA's notice of violation, arguing that the sulfur dioxide requirement only pertained to the refinery's previous owner, Hovensa, because the plant no longer burns sulfur-containing residual fuel oil.

The EPA disagreed with the company, noting that operating without sulfur dioxide monitors was in violation of the refinery's permits and other regulations.

The EPA said on Monday that it is encouraged by Limetree Bay’s decision to re-establish the sulfur dioxide monitors and that it is exploring how it can support or augment monitoring in the interim.

"Monitoring is particularly important for this community given the continuing reports of odors near the facility," the agency said.

Agency staffers arrived on the island last week to conduct a joint investigation into the refinery incidents with the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

In March, the Biden Administration revoked a permit that would have allowed Limetree Bay to expand with limited review, reversing a decision made in December by the Trump Administration that would have allowed it to build more units without being deemed a new source of pollution.

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