May 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the owners of Limetree Bay refinery that they violated the Clean Air Act by failing to operate five sulfur dioxide air monitors near the plant in St. Croix of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the agency said on Monday.
The EPA said the failure violated requirements set by Limetree Bay's permit and other regulations.
Agency staffers arrived on the island to conduct an investigation of the recently-restarted refinery last week after a series of incidents caused a strong odor on the island and prompted residents to feel ill. read more
Limetree Bay, owned by private equity firm EIG Partners and ArcLight Commodities, denied it violated any ambient air monitoring requirement, emphasizing that its operations at the refinery are different from the previous owner.
"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," Limetree Bay said in a statement, adding that while another permit issued in December 2020 required area monitoring, that permit was withdrawn by the EPA in March before going into effect.
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'UNUSUALLY HIGH AMOUNT'
Limetree Bay said earlier this month that the odor, which prompted school closures, was due to an "operating upset," which sent an "unusually high amount of sulfur-containing gases" to the refinery's flare where they burned as sulfur dioxide.
The refiner began producing transportation fuel in January after a series of incidents, including fires, delayed the project by more than a year and contributed to massive cost overruns..
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 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," said EPA acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan in a statement.
The company also failed to operate a meteorological tower, the EPA said.
Reuters exclusively reported that the sulfur dioxide monitors were not operating in March. read more
EPA staff is jointly investigating with the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources after the latter agency reported the refiner exceeded hydrogen sulfide levels in April.
The agency is looking to determine "the level of the exceedances, the composition of the releases, the duration and cause of the incidents, the corrective actions taken or to be taken, the potential public health impacts, and how to best prevent future incidents," it said last week.
The refiner may be liable for civil penalties and required to take actions to correct the violations, the EPA said.
The population around the refinery is predominately low-income communities and people of color.
"These disproportionate burdens present environmental justice concerns, which are a priority for EPA," the agency said.
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