St. Eustatius Residents Fear Losing Their Island to Expanded Oil Terminal

Part II of a multi-part series, published at

Oranjestad Bay with ruins of the old waterfront in foreground, vacationing sailboats and tanker in the distance.

Oranjestad Bay with ruins of the old waterfront in foreground, vacationing sailboats and tanker in the distance.

By Betsy Crowfoot

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.

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