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Will the Biden Administration Take Environmental Justice Seriously?


It’s easy to speak words about environmental justice. It’s much harder to take actions around the issue because environmental racism and injustice is about powerful industries targeting the poor, both domestically and globally. And powerful industries always are hard to take on politically. So we will see if Biden really does anything about it. This is a good example from the Virgin Islands of what this all looks like:

Two hours after midnight in this island paradise, a cloudy vapor rose from a massive oil refinery and floated over nearby homes as quietly as a ghost.

The fine mist of oil and water from Limetree Bay Refining rained down on the community of Clifton Hill, showering the slick mix onto cars, gardens, rooftops and cisterns filled with rainwater that residents use for daily tasks.

The vapor, caused by a pressure release valve triggered by an accident on Feb. 4, came just three days after the Limetree Bay refinery reopened for the first time in nearly a decade, and the incident prompted the Biden administration to investigate. The Trump administration had approved the reopening of the plant, which had shut down after facing a deluge of lawsuits alleging serious environmental violations.

Three miles from the refinery, Armando Muñoz still sees signs of oil everywhere.

“When it rains it doesn’t wash out,” said Muñoz, 59, who lives with his wife and 78-year-old mother-in-law. “It’s in all the plants we have, avocado trees, and breadfruit trees, and fruit trees and regular household plants.”

The refinery presents one of the earliest tests of President Biden’s vow to clean up pollution in America’s disadvantaged communities. Ushered back into existence in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Limetree Bay refinery embodies the difficult tradeoffs Biden faces as he tries to deliver on promises to provide both a clean, safe environment and plenty of good-paying jobs.

This week Biden officials will withdraw a key permit for the refinery, according to two individuals briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it had not been announced yet. The Environmental Protection Agency’s move will not close the plant but could lead to tighter pollution controls, marking the administration’s most significant step yet in a campaign to ensure environmental justice.

Many officials in the Virgin Islands support the plant, so any federal action poses significant implications. The pandemic has battered the local tourism industry, leaving the refinery and its adjoining logistics hub as a significant source of revenue worth at least $25 million a year to the U.S. Virgin Islands government. The two facilities also employ more than 400 full-time workers, virtually all of them territory residents, and 300 contractors.

“I’m going to be honest with you, the economy in the Virgin Islands, we were dead,” said Herminio Torres, a community organizer in Clifton Hill. Retooling the plant brought contractors to the island at a crucial time. “Those workers buy our local food, our local products. The economy has moved forward.”

Company officials said that they are addressing the contamination and that the plant is safe. According to a company report, when water gushed into a drum holding hot coke — an oil byproduct — the reaction triggered a safety valve that relieved the pressure. Refinery flares usually release a mix of water vapor and carbon dioxide: In this case tiny oil droplets entered the air, drifting as far as three miles away.

This is an easier call because Trump (like any Republican would have) decided to reopen this polluting factory. But it does get at the complex issues of employment, who has power in local communities, and to what extent politicians are going to cross dirty industries.

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