PlanPhilly

Who will decide the future of the South Philly refinery?

Sylvia Bennett felt her bed shake when the explosion rocked Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in June. It wasn’t the first time the refinery, her neighbor in South Philly, touched her life.   

Bennett’s daughter is dying of cancer and her grandchildren struggle with asthma. She links both to the noxious pollution spewed from the refinery until that fiery early morning boom. The refinery, the largest in the Northeast, was the city's biggest single polluter. 

The PES facility’s impending closure now creates a chance for the city to prioritize the health of its residents, Bennett told local officials Tuesday evening. 

The South Philadelphia grandmother, a member of the environmental group Philly Thrive, spoke at the first public meeting of a refinery advisory group established by the city in the wake of the announcement that PES will cease operations at the 1,300-acre facility and lay off more than 1,000 employees by August 25. 

“This is common sense, it’s no brainer. God gave us common sense, we need to use it. Clean this mess up out here —  it’s a trap. It’s a killer trap,” Bennett said. “And we love to talk about drugs, we talk about stealing, people doing this and that. This is a solid killer.”

Most of the input heard by city officials and experts on the future of the refinery at Tuesday night’s meeting in Point Breeze came from nearby residents and environmentalists, with only three of the more than 20 public comments made coming from people employed at the refinery, all of them men. 

While neighbors such as Bennett and environmentalists said the refinery should be kept closed and the city should hold the responsible parties accountable to remediate pollution on the site to allow for a cleaner future, workers and union representatives emphasized job losses. 

John Bland, business manager of the Boilermakers Union Local 13, said the South Philly refinery provided jobs for more than 37,000 people. He said nobody will win if the refinery shuts down permanently. 

“If you lose that refinery the only thing that’s going to change: imported products with no EPA regulations are going to get shipped here. And I’m sorry that you don’t want it in your backyard, but like I said, we need a better job at monitoring and getting that refinery back,” Bland said.

The city's power over site is limited, officials say

The meeting was the first of four intended to help the city gather input and information on the closure of the refinery, its impacts and possible future uses for the 1,300-acre site. The city will issue a report with recommendations by fall. But the city’s managing director Brian Abernathy, who co-chairs the advisory group, stressed the city has limited authority when it comes to private property such as the PES site. 

“I don’t want anyone to leave the room and say that this report, or this committee, or the city is going to dictate exactly what happens at PES. We do think we have some significant influence and we hope to use that influence,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy said changing the zoning of the site won’t prevent a new refinery from operating there. 

“Right now the zoning would permit heavy industrial use,” Abernathy said. “Even if we change the zoning tomorrow, and another refinery came in to purchase it, as long as that refinery had been in use within the last year, that use would still be permitted going forward.”  

Refineries have operated at the site since 1866, contaminating soil and groundwater with petroleum hydrocarbons that have negative effects on human health.

The former owner Sunoco, now Energy Transfer, has been remediating the site, monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, since 2003. But experts have questioned the process because it did not include legally required public input and because the standards used for the cleanup are only appropriate if the site becomes another refinery. 

Some residents asked the advisory group for the city to take over the land by eminent domain. Abernathy said it would be difficult and pricey, but did not outright discard the idea.

Cause of fire still unknown

Out of the 26 members of the advisory group, only 16 showed up. The group includes eight government officials, three environmental and academic experts, four labor representatives, seven business executives, and four community members, each representing a South Philadelphia neighborhood affected by the refinery. But residents and environmentalists said the group could include a larger number of independent experts in public health, environmental remediation, and environmental justice. More neighbors should be on the panel too, they said.  

“It is unacceptable that residents from the many diverse neighborhoods from Southwest and West Philadelphia, directly impacted by PES, are not represented,” resident Mark Clincy said. 

Members of the public also recommended the city hire a consultant to ensure robust public engagement and more outreach. The meeting was attended by about 80 people. Abernathy said additions to the group and further outreach will be considered.

In July, experts questioned the city’s air monitoring system during a hearing before state lawmakers. Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams told the advisory group he wants the issue to be discussed in future sessions, as well as the removal of hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic chemical. 

PES is planning to neutralize tens of thousands of barrels of HF still present in the facility. City officials said it will happen “anytime now” and that neighbors were still at risk until the operation was completed successfully.

The causes of the refinery fire explosion are still unknown. The city’s Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management are conducting on-site investigations, as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

The advisory group committees will hold four other public meetings focusing on the community (Aug. 20), labor (Aug. 21), the environment (Aug. 27), and business (Sept. 9) at Preparatory Charter School in Point Breeze. Residents can also provide written comments. The city created a special website with details of the process coming forward. 

Editor's Note: This article was updated on August 8, 2019 with more information about the composition of the city refinery advisory group. 

About the author

Catalina Jaramillo, Reporter

Catalina Jaramillo covers environment and sustainability for PlanPhilly and WHYY. She tells stories on how climate change, pollution, and policies regulating air, water, land, energy, food and waste affect residents on their everyday lives. She’s also interested in stories about nature and how people interact with it. Before joining WHYY, she wrote and produced stories for publications in New York City, Mexico and Chile. She has taught journalism in Chile and at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in NYC. She has been a Metcalf and a Fulbright fellow, and is a graduate of Columbia School of Journalism. She was born and raised in Santiago, Chile, and has been living in Philadelphia since 2014, in front of Norris Square Park, in Kensington. She tweets as @cjaramillo and you can email her in English or Spanish at cjaramillo@whyy.org.



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