You Can’t Eat Oil

7 July 2015


By Cassandra Ceballos – CFJC Intern

I’m going to paint a picture for you, and I want you to try and guess where I’m describing. Imagine you’re sitting in a wicker chair at a mahogany table. You’re wearing a loose tank top and cutoff shorts. There are sandals on your feet, and you’re eating New Year’s Eve dinner with your family. It’s December, yet you’re in summer clothing and the ocean breeze is ruffling your hair as fire dancers begin their performance on the sand, moving to the beat of the music/drums piped through speakers set throughout the restaurant. Suddenly masked men on stilts appear. Their costumes are colorful and wild, with billowing sleeves and pant legs that stretch to the end of the stilts. They’re easily over 10 feet tall, and over the speaker a local man announces the arrival of “Moko Jumbies” in a heavy Crucian accent. Your family is here for the Winter holiday. The Eastern Corridor is experiencing a particularly cold winter and you came to paradise to escape and drink a couple of Painkillers, a delicious drink full of cinnamon extract and pineapple rum.

Have you figured it out yet? You’re on St. Croix, at the local Carambola resort. “Crucian” might have given it away, because that’s what you call people born there. I know this because I’m Crucian.

Perhaps you’ve heard of St. Croix, but chances are you haven’t; it doesn’t even show up on a globe with a population of about 56,000 people in an 84 square mile radius. St. Croix is one of three islands known collectively as the United States Virgin Islands after the United States purchased St. Croix from Denmark in 1917 for 25 million dollars in gold bars. I was born and raised on St. Croix and my family has been there for many generations; it holds a special place in my heart. In many ways it is  paradise, literally, and a good portion of our GDP relies on non-Crucians coming to vacation on our island. But paradise isn’t always perfect.

Many Caribbean islands are plagued with structural problems. Governments are often corrupt and prices on virtually everything are astronomically high. For example, gasoline was over $3.50 in the United States Virgin Islands while it dropped below $2.00 in many states. Another feature of many of these Caribbean islands and nations is their unrealized potential. St. Croix is no exception. While St. Thomas and St. John, the two other islands that make up the United States Virgin Islands, have a hilly terrain unsuitable for farming, the landscape of St. Croix is for the most part flat with great topsoil and yet, it still imports almost all of its food.

There is a reason everything on St. Croix costs more than it does on the mainland: added transportation cost. It takes an impressive amount of fuel to feed the planes and cargo ships that come to St. Croix bearing shipments daily. They bring everything residents need, from toilet paper to cars to food. More than 95% of the food sold in grocery stores and in restaurants on St. Croix is imported. But it hasn’t always been that way. In the first half of the twentieth century, St. Croix was a major agricultural hub in the Caribbean, with its specialty export being sugarcane. However, in the 1966, American owned Hess Oil established a subsidiary on St. Croix and opened an oil refinery and by 1974 was the largest refinery in the world producing at a rate of 650,000 barrels a day. Hess Oil Virgin Islands then formed a merger company with the Petroleos de Venezuela Virgin Islands subsidiary, becoming the company I grew up knowing as “HOVENSA”.

With the arrival of oil the agricultural industry declined and St. Croix began an almost 50 year contract with this devil before HOVENSA officially announced its closure in January of 2012. The Environmental Protection Agency first discovered groundwater polluted with oil plumes in 1982 when the facility was still exclusively owned by Hess Oil. Since 1982, over 43 million gallons in oil plumes have been recovered from the groundwater, accounting for 99% of the contamination. While HOVENSA recovered most of the oil from the groundwater, it leaked more oil than the largest oil spill to date, when Exxon Valdez spilled roughly 11 million gallons of oil into the Alaskan Gulf.

While oil supported St. Croix’s economy for many decades, HOVENSA officially closed down in April of 2012 after suffering over 1 billion dollars in losses the previous three years and being slapped with 700 million dollars in mandated environmental upgrades by the EPA. Post-HOVENSA, the island’s economy tanked with the GDP falling 13 percent in the year after the closure. Governor Kenneth Mapp recently declared St. Croix in the worst economic state in the territory’s history. Prices continue to rise, as does the number of local businesses packing up and leaving. Even my grandmother, who has lived on St. Croix her entire life, began spending half the year off the island and speaks frequently of moving away altogether. The island is a ghost town; it has lost its spirit.

As a native Crucian, it is frustrating and heartbreaking for me to see this. I tear up as I think about all the ‘For Sale’ signs that are line the streets of St. Croix. They are a constant reminder of what is happening to my island. Oil became like a drug addiction for St. Croix. Although it was profitable, it damaged the environmental and cultural integrity of the island. It leached away our resources and our spirit. The extent of HOVENSA’s environmental damage was evident immediately. In the 2013 Toxics Release Inventory conducted annually by the EPA, the amount of toxins detected at the HOVENSA site dropped 299,524 pounds, going from 317,383 pounds to 17,859 pounds between 2012 and 2013. However, the toxics released by the HOVENSA site in 2013 still accounted for 81% of the 22,029 pounds released in the entire territory; almost all of the toxics were released into the air.

Since the closure, rumors circulate every several months about the history of the HOVENSA site with the most common rumor being that a new company will buy the facility and restart the oil refinery. But I think the resale of the facility is highly unlikely for two reasons. One, oil is not the same lucrative business it once was. More fracking sites exist than when HOVENSA was a booming refinery, and HOVENA’s former clients acquire energy from more local sites or use alternative energy sources altogether. Those who talk about reopening the refinery seem to forget that HOVENSA shut down because of the slump in business. Secondly, the environmental evidence is clear: HOVENSA was gravely harming the health of both residents and the island’s many complex and endangered ecosystems.

Industrialization is complicated, and sometimes it harms those it was meant to help. I don’t know what the future holds for my St. Croix, but I am optimistic. Recently a new Senator, Novelle Francis Jr., proposed a bill that would greatly enhance the support for local farmers and agriculture, including the fishing industry. Governor Mapp recognizes the potential for St. Croix’s agricultural industry, most notably in its ability to significantly lower the high cost of living on the island. I have hope too. But the next time you take a trip or cruise to the Caribbean, remember that paradise isn’t always as perfect as it seems.





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