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Curaçao's crude legacy

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The refinery blessed and cursed this island of 150,000. Built by Royal Dutch Shell, it provided thousands of jobs and an industrial base for this arid, out-of-the way island and literally fueled the allied invasion of North Africa in World War II. It still employs 900 people and is one of Curaçao’s largest foreign-exchange earners.

“The refinery is a given on the island, and it’s hard to say we would do better without it,” says Don Werdekker, director of the Cura­­­­­çao Hospitality and Tourism As­­­sociation. “Some tourist destinations are highly dependent on that one sector, and you can see today how that makes them vulnerable in a crisis. Provided the refinery operates according to the best possible environmental guidelines, we welcome it,” he says.

But Dutch and local authorities never imposed the same environmental regulations they had at home, removing an incentive to invest in pollution-abatement technology. By 1985 the Isla refinery was so antiquated that Shell, Holland’s lar­gest corporation, declared it obsolete. But instead of tearing it down at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, Shell got the island government to buy it for $1 and to absolve the conglomerate of any future environmental and health liabilities.

Shell knew that it was getting a sweetheart deal, says Raveneau’s colleague Lloyd Narain, and the island government was naive. “We islanders knew nothing about the refinery – it had been an island within the island – and the government didn’t even have a specialist on their side,” he says. Island leaders panicked when Shell pulled out. They feared social unrest if the plant closed.

Many on the island now think Shell has at least a moral responsibility to clean up past contamination at the refinery, which is currently operated by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA on a long-term lease. The international office of Friends of the Earth agrees, and last year held a worldwide campaign to urge Shell to clean up Isla and eight other problematic sites.

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