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HOVENSA Fined for Violating Clean Air Pollution Regulations

EPA representative briefs V.I. Senate on HOVENSA

By DANIEL SHEA (Daily News Staff)
Published: January 27, 2011

ST. THOMAS – Just before the first break in the day’s proceedings Wednesday at a committee hearing in the V.I. Legislature, Sen. Alicia Hansen asked a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representative to relay a bombshell piece of news to the senators and others present.

“This morning, a consent decree was lodged in the federal court in which HOVENSA was levied more than $5 million in penalties,” said EPA Caribbean Environmental Protection Division Director Carl-Axel Soderberg. “In addition, it has to pay more than a quarter million dollars to the Virgin Islands.”

The news of the filing of the consent decree, which Soderberg said had been in negotiation for more than five years, had been anticipated for weeks. But the recent string of chemical releases by the refinery pushed the matter to the forefront, causing the EPA and U.S. Justice Department to mandate and finalize the order, Soderberg said.

The news came as a surprise to a number of senators on the V.I. Senate’s Government Operations, Energy and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

They said they knew that the EPA was working on resolving issues with HOVENSA but did not realize it was on such a large scale:

– The federal government fined HOVENSA $5.125 million for violating the Clean Air Pollution Regulations.

– $250,000 in fines is to be paid to the Virgin Islands.

– HOVENSA was ordered to establish an escrow fund of $4.875 million for supplemental environmental projects in the territory.

– HOVENSA has to invest $700 million in capital projects over the next decade to reduce its emissions.

“It definitely clarifies for us that HOVENSA has been in violation for some time with its emissions,” Sen. Terrence Nelson said.

V.I. senators have been speaking out in recent months after a series of chemical releases at HOVENSA highlighted what had been a long-standing problem, according to the decree.

Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly had drawn up a bill that would have created a similar escrow account that all territorial polluters would have to contribute to in order to fund a more robust DPNR monitoring program. Rivera-O’Reilly had drafted the bill even before a series of chemical releases began in September.

Shortly after the most serious incident on Dec. 9, when more than 250 students and staff at St. Croix Central High School reported sickness after a release of hydrocarbons from the refinery that morning, a number of other senators began to speak out against HOVENSA.

Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said he wants to establish an air monitoring network on St. Croix and fund a health study to determine the long-term affect of the refinery’s emissions on the residents downwind. He reiterated his intentions at Wednesday’s hearing.

Sen. Usie Richards also agreed that the territory needs to find funding for studies to track and study the health affects on the community.

He said that the V.I. Health Department needs to be able to test the cisterns of residents, which is another contentious issue because HOVENSA has done the testing and provided its own results to the government.

“It is totally absent and the V.I. Code requires that the Department of Health has those capabilities,” Malone said.

The air-quality monitoring also has been left largely to HOVENSA, except for sporadic testing on the part of the EPA or follow-up testing done in response to a release, Soderberg said.

In addition, HOVENSA must submit quarterly reports on the maintenance of its facility, according to acting DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes.

But almost all of that information is gathered by HOVENSA and then submitted to the regulating agencies. And DPNR only has the staffing capability to perform audits on a three-year basis, officials have said.

DPNR will be in charge of monitoring HOVENSA’s progress with the decree, which could create a staffing issue for the department. There are grants, however, that could fund additional positions, Barnes said.

“The problem I have is that HOVENSA monitors itself,” Sen. Ronald Russell said.

A number of senators were under the impression that the EPA should have been monitoring or at least providing money for monitoring.

“It appears to me that the EPA doesn’t regulate with the same stringent measures that it uses in other states,” Nelson said.

Soderberg tried to dispel any such notion.

“The monitoring systems that have been established in the Virgin Islands are, as far as I know, the same as others that have been established in places like New Jersey and New York,” he said. “The EPA finances some of the establishment of these air-monitoring systems, and they are then run by the state agency.”

Currently, DPNR has only stationary monitors that test for particulate matter and lacks the equipment needed to determine the levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrogen sulfide and hydrocarbons that can be released in refinery discharges.

Many senators have called out the EPA for not playing a greater role.

Sen. Louis Hill wrote a letter to the EPA requesting that the federal agency conduct a health study to determine how the refinery has affected residents’ health. Hill said that the territorial agencies do not have the expertise to monitor the massive refinery.

“This is the first time that I’ve known that the federal government has taken action like this with reference to HOVENSA,” Richards said.

Other senators have emphasized the importance of taking on HOVENSA from the territorial level.

“It should be the local government’s priority, not theirs,” Nelson said, referring to the federal government.

“We can’t wait for anyone else to do it for us. It’s time we start to be noticed here,” Nelson said. “HOVENSA contributes close to $900 million to the U.S. Treasury annually, and we are the ones that have to deal with the pollution.”

– Contact Daniel Shea at 774-8772 ext. 457 or e-mail
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