ORANJESTAD, SE – Kenneth Cuvalay, Coordinator of the St. Eustatius Awareness and Development (SEAD) Movement, sat at a restaurant along St. Eustatius’ (Statia) historic waterfront with several opponents of NuStar Energy’s proposed oil terminal expansion.
The informal gathering took place at a spot where 250 years ago the Caribbean’s most prosperous harbor flourished. Now, the potholed street was lined with the ruins of once-flush warehouses, their crumbling stone foundations melting into the black sand and sea.
But the waterfront – ‘lower town’ – showed promise of re-gentrification. Trucks and workers sped down the road; a few inns, shops and eateries trembled under the din of nearby bulldozers and jackhammers, busily renovating the harbor to welcome the hoped-for increase in tourists.
Several factions opposing NuStar’s proposal (to add 30-some oil storage and processing tanks south of Signal Hill) were represented at the meeting, each with their goals and opinions. But all agreed the projected oil terminal would sound a death knell for the long sought-after eco-tourism opportunities on the tiny Caribbean Island.
Un-Greening the Golden Rock
“No tourist wants to come to an island crowded with oil tanks,” said Walter Hellebrand, Director of the St. Eustatius Monuments Foundation (SEMF). His 11-year-old organization is tasked with protecting and renovating the cultural and historical resources of the island, which was the Caribbean’s leading center of trade in the 17th and 18thcenturies, bustling with over 20,000 inhabitants.
Already one Dutch tour operator dealing in active and eco-tourism has threatened to strike Statia from its docket due to the oil terminal plans. “The proposed expansion of NuStar will damage the experience of our clients to be walking on an island of special natural beauty, and could result in excluding St. Eustatius from our scheduled program,” SNP Natuureizen wrote.
It’s not an unlikely outcome. New Zealand, touted for years in travel magazines as “100 Percent Pure New Zealand,” is worried about a recent oil spill tainting the country’s image and impacting tourism, while government officials go out of their way to extend reassurances to tourists.
“Could you imagine right now sitting here as a tourist, with ecotourism as an emphasis, and having all these tankers – 10 on a busy day – coming and going, and all of the noise and pollution?” posed Cuvalay, as his arm swept from Gallows Bay to Oranjestad Bay. “Ecotourism and sustainable economic alternatives will be forced into suppression.”
Up, Up and Away
In fact, NuStar’s actions were questioned by some as deliberate attempts to clip Statia’s future as an eco-tourism destination — even as the island’s Strategic Development Plan has pinpointed the promotion of tourism as a healthy and viable economic growth opportunity. The Plan leans heavily on tourism in part because the anticipated increase in automation at the oil facility is expected to stunt the number of staff required to do the same amount of work — meaning NuStar’s pledge of 40 new jobs (as a result of the expansion) cannot be substantiated.
At present, the island is a moderately known vacation spot for boaters, and divers, with unique underwater terrain created by volcanic fissures and canyons, and sharks, rays, and rare species in abundance. Topside, visitors enjoy hiking trails along the slopes of The Quill and northern hills, and a botanic garden — plus the chance to catch a glimpse of rare wildlife including several endangered and threatened species of reptiles, birds, and nesting sea turtles.
NuStar has pointed out the massive tanks will not be visible from “Lower Town” – a point Hellebrand says is “devious,” as they refer only to the view from the harbor, not Upper Town Oranjestad, nor historic Fort Oranje, from which the expanse of tanks will be blatantly obvious. NuStar’s response is a proposal to camouflage the 100-foot (31m) high tanks with green paint and foliage.
The expansion proposal is startlingly contrary to Dutch tourism legislation of 1997 which spurred Statia (and her sister islands) to establish strategic and spatial plans, and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) which calls for recognition of “the inextricable dependence of tourism on the natural environment” – in particular, “the coastal and marine environment.” At the same time, the Netherlands has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent on its turf over the next eight years, and to promote clean and renewable energy resources — edicts which make the expansion almost contemptible in light of environmental policy and conventions.
Already, NuStar is responsible for nearly one-third of Statia’s jobs. Eradicating other avenues of economic growth could guarantee them carte blanche for unfettered development. “What would stop them from taking over the whole island?” Cuvalay posed.
‘Injustice Upon Injustice’
The facility site, called The Farm, is currently zoned for business and storage under the island’s Spatial Development Plan. But the Fortune 500 company has applied to the Island Council for a variance to that plan.
An historic plantation complex lies at the heart of the property selected for development. It includes historic homes, slave villages and slave cemeteries traditionally marked by Tamarind trees, one of which is estimated to be 170 years old.
“Already one of the historic buildings has been dismantled,” Hellebrand pointed out. “The site contains what may be the oldest slave cemetery in the Caribbean, the disruption of which is injustice upon injustice.” The project will ultimately involve excavating and grading the entire acreage.
“NuStar is not the big, bad enemy,” Hellebrand conceded. “We are very much aware of the important role they play in the economy of Statia and the contribution they make: employing people, who have to eat, rent houses, drive cars. However, if the island needs an oil terminal, it should be a real expansion, not a second terminal. Put it here,” he said, motioning to land adjacent NuStar’s existing installation, “not here,” he stressed, pointing to the plot just south of Signal Hill.
“A Done Deal?”
Many townspeople are apathetic, and see the terminal extension as a ‘done deal.’
“The community does not know what are their rights,” said Cuvalay. “We are trying to keep this whole issue alive. We are speaking about a huge breach of human rights; a total invasion of the balance of the community and the environment.”
The group is calling on the public to voice their opinions and take action.
“The law is there for them to use,” said Hellebrand – whose July 2011 request for an injunction, to halt preparatory work, was dismissed on the grounds the judge found permits had not been issued to proceed. But SEMF has also filed an appeal, as has Oranjestad resident Olga Schats.
“When you read about the expansion, you think it’s a done deal. But we are still here in the first part of the process,” said Schats, who filed an appeal saying, “my view is compromised.” She added that she did so as an example to others. “My main issue is the people of Statia are not aware of the possibilities.”
One such action was already successful in moving the oil tanks away from the flight pattern and end of the mile-long runway, and pushed the storage zone away from the school grounds.
Opponents Thrown a Bone
Along with the land-based storage tanks – used also for mixing and processing the oil and products – is NuStar’s desire to add a jetty to accommodate the increase in ships. A new wharf, more than mile-long (1730m) and able to accommodate six of the world’s largest supertankers, is also on the slate.
Recently NuStar relocated the planned jetty, moving it from the town’s main public beach adjacent The Farm, to a site north of the existing jetty. But Cuvalay rejected NuStar’s claim that they threw opponents a bone and that Island Council pressure forced the change, saying, “It wasn’t pressure to change – in retrospect, they realized the area was too shallow.”
“We’ve been suggesting alternatives (to the terminal site) and every time, NuStar cuts us short saying ‘No, this is not possible because it is too expensive’ – without substantiating the answers,” Hellebrand claimed. “They throw the answer off the cuff: I’m afraid they didn’t investigate their options very much,” he added, citing an ongoing complaint: that NuStar’s actions have been hasty.
“Everybody seems to be going full speed ahead,” said Jamal Berkel, of the Statia Roots Foundation. “Everything is based on economics, but the environment and health of the people are not even under consideration. Let’s take a stand here: we don’t want to wait until it starts to affect our health and our children.”