In the Shadow of Shuttered Philadelphia Refinery, Neighbors Recall Those Lost to Decades of Pollution

Read time: 11 mins
PES Refinery fenceline memorial

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery was —until last year — the largest and oldest gasoline refinery on the East Coast. The week it was sold began with a community rally that also served as a makeshift memorial service.

On Monday, June 22, as Black Lives Matter protests continued nationwide, members of Philly Thrive, a local grassroots group, arrived outside the perimeter of the refinery complex in South Philadelphia. They posted “in memorium” placards bearing the names of deceased Philadelphians along the facility’s chainlink borders, handwritten fenceline memorials for departed members of the refinery's fenceline community. Speakers that day recalled less the fiery explosion that tore through the plant one year earlier and more the long-term harms caused by decades of fossil fuel production in the majority Black neighborhood.

Later that week, on June 26, Hilco Redevelopment Partners closed on the sale of this sprawling 1,400 acre refinery complex in the heart of one of the nation’s largest cities. The new owners have indicated that they do not plan to reopen the refinery, instead publicly discussing ways the heavily contaminated land could be used for warehousing and oil storage.

One year earlier, nearly to the day, a never-inspected segment of pipe inside the 153-year old PES refinery wore through and burst, according to a preliminary report by federal investigators. The breached pipe released a mix of fossil fuel chemicals used to make gasoline as well as one of the most dangerous substances used by industry today, hydrogen fluoride. The blend ignited in a series of explosions, unleashing a fireball so large that it registered on weather satellites orbiting the Earth and some locals mistook it for the implosion of an atom bomb.

Through a series of lucky near-misses, no one was killed that night — not by the three-alarm fire, not by a bus-sized storage tank and other ruptured equipment that rained down following the blasts, nor by the ground-clinging cloud of chemicals that seeped out into the refinery, but that never spread past its fences. If not for split-second decisions by refinery workers who drained hydrogen fluoride from the unit that ruptured, the chemical could have spread for miles and killed more than a million people, all within minutes.

PES Refinery view
The mothballed PES refinery, seen from the Passyunk Avenue bridge on June 22. Credit: Sharon Kelly © 2020.

Roughly 20,000 people live within one mile of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data shows. The majority of those living inside that radius are Black and a third of households have incomes below $15,000 a year. Expand that circle outwards to three miles of PES, and you'll find the homes of over 350,000 people, sixty percent of whom are people of color.

For those gathered at the June 22 rally and memorial, the now-inoperable refinery’s hazards remained all too vivid. For Sylvia Bennet, it lives on in her granddaughter’s respiratory problems, for Kilynn Johnson in her own multiple cancer diagnoses, and in the memories of those who passed away.

People, generations have died in South Philadelphia because of that oil refinery,” said Carol Hemingway, membership coordinator for Philly Thrive. “The buck stops now. We will not allow another company to come in here and do what they did.”

Connecting the Dots

The PES refinery was built long before the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws were written — and it consistently flouted the rules once they were on the books. The refinery was “the largest single source of air pollution in Philadelphia,” NPR's State Impact reported in 2019, “and has never been in compliance with the Clean Air Act.”

In 2012, the plant spewed over three-quarters of a million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air surrounding the plant, a 2014 EPA fact sheet notes, adding that was a reduction from the plant’s 809,945 lbs of pollution the year prior. For comparison, the next largest polluter in South Philadelphia reported 9,599 pounds of air pollutants released in 2012. More than 9 percent of the total reported toxic releases in South Philadelphia that year were just one chemical: benzene.

Cancer survivor Kilynn Johnson described the connections she saw between her health and the PES refinery.
Cancer survivor Kilynn Johnson described the connections she saw between her health and the PES refinery. Credit: Sharon Kelly © 2020.

Benzene is perhaps best known as a powerful carcinogen — but it can cause other impacts, including impacts for children’s health. Despite a relative lack of scientific research in the area, “emerging studies show that benzene exposure can cause deleterious health effects in children,” one 2018 peer-reviewed paper on benzene and children’s health found. Neurological symptoms were among the most frequently reported symptoms among a group of children exposed to benzene by a 2010 incident at a BP refinery in Texas, the researchers noted.

Benzene problems at PES persisted even after the refinery stopped processing fossil fuels, a 2020 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found — earning PES the report’s top slot in a list of benzene polluters nationwide. “The refinery with the highest benzene levels at the end of the third quarter of 2019 was the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in Pennsylvania, whose annual average net concentration was over five times the EPA standard,” the report found.

Oh my god,” Bob Sonawane, a former EPA official told NBC News after reviewing benzene data. “The numbers that you're saying are very, very high, like some things happening in China, India, and many other places.”

Philly Thrive's Carol Hemingway, age 70, first began opposing the refinery when she began connecting the dots between that pollution and the impacts she saw in her community.

As a social worker, I had clients that had kids with disabilities and I’m saying to my colleagues, ‘why do so many kids in South Philly have disabilities, learning disabilities?’” Hemingway said in an interview with DeSmog. “It took 15 years to connect the dots. The more I got into this, the more I read about it, the more I saw as a community activist, I could not be still.”

You cannot have social justice without environmental justice,” Hemingway said.

Carol Hemingway looks on as Avery Broughton, 18, and other South Philadelphia youth participate in the June 22 rally.
Carol Hemingway, left, looks on as 18-year-old Avery Broughton, center-left, and other South Philadelphia youth participate in the June 22 rally. Credit: Sharon Kelly © 2020.

Decontamination After a Century of Spills

The refinery's recent sale marked a major milestone in the transition away from refining in South Philadelphia. Though it’s not yet fully clear what its new owner plans for its recent purchase, Hilco executives have emphasized the ways that the site’s railroad and maritime infrastructure and its proximity to the Philadelphia International Airport could be valuable to prospective tenants.

HRP, the real estate redevelopment unit of liquidation firm Hilco Global, says it will take several years to demolish and begin rebuilding the site, parts of which are seriously polluted from more than a century of fuel processing,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Hilco executives anticipate it eventually will be occupied by different companies that are less susceptible to the boom-and-bust cycle of a single oil refinery.”

Hilco has made moves to ensure that the site can still be used to store fossil fuels. In June, as negotiations over the buying price intensified, the company said it had learned that a pipeline easement had expired and that it had sprinted to negotiate new approvals, ensuring that the refinery’s tank farms would still have routes to transport fossil fuels in and out for storage.

At the same time, the legacy contamination on the site will need to be cleaned up.

Mass-mailings about the cleanup circulated to the refinery’s neighbors name Evergreen Resources Group, LLC as the company responsible for remediating the pollution left behind by decades of the refinery’s operations.

The parent company of Evergreen Resources Group is Energy Transfer — the same company behind pipeline construction projects including the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), Mariner East, and Revolution (which exploded less than a week after it was first used).

Already, there are major battles shaping up over efforts to clean up the land under the refinery, which is saturated with fossil fuels after more than a century of spills, dumping, and leaks. Groundwater below the plant is contaminated as well.

Philly Thrive's Sylvia Bennett speaks about the PES refinery and her family's experiences at the June 22 protest. Credit: Sharon Kelly © 2020.

In 2012, Energy Transfer announced its $5.3 billion acquisition of Sunoco, Inc., which had operated the PES refinery until 2012 and which had assumed the cleanup liabilities for the refinery site. “The fund for remediation of all of Sunoco’s legacy sites was valued at $207 million at the end of 2017,” the Inquirer reported in January.

In September 2018, the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy faulted Energy Transfer’s remediation process at PES for failing to involve the surrounding community and non-compliance with the public notice requirements of a state law commonly referred to as Act 2.

Act 2 is part of Pennsylvania’s “land recycling” program, which aims to encourage voluntary cleanup of polluted sites. It offers participants relief from future liability once cleanup standards are met. A key part of that program requires documentation of the extent of contamination — a process that is still ongoing at the PES refinery site.

It’s not clear that existing information about the contamination is complete. “All the work that has been going on in the last 30 years has been under conditions of an operating refinery,” David Brown, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) official, told Philadelphia public media organization WHYY last year. “That has meant that there have been some areas that have not been investigated.

As part of the process, state officials must sign off on Energy Transfer’s findings. “It is important to remember that once PA DEP approves the final report, the chance to leverage [Energy Transfer’s] remediation effort will largely be closed, unless new contamination is discovered, exposure assumptions change, or fraud is suspected,” the 2018 University of Pennsylvania report notes.

Then there’s the process of dismantling the refinery itself, which requires careful cleaning during disassembly to ensure that hydrocarbons aren’t released, and which may require the removal of asbestos and other highly hazardous materials.

'They were all being erased'

The kinds of harms that those chemicals are capable of are all too familiar to some members of Philly Thrive.

I was born and raised over there in the Grays Ferry community,” Philly Thrive member Sonya Sanders said in an interview. “My grandmother was raised here too, she told me all about the refinery.”

I watched my neighbors die. Cancer, all of them,” said Sanders. “Around the corner, down the street. They were all being erased.”

A lot of us are what you call poor people and we don’t have the resources, the money to fight. This big company? We don’t have the money for that. Not even together,” she said. “So it was more so, ‘shut up, live your life, deal with it.’”

Sanders described the routine she and her family developed in response to the odors that would seep outwards from the aging refinery. “Family drill was, you put the blankets down,” she said, describing how her family sought to keep outdoor air from entering her home. “When we smelled the smell, it was like, ‘go get the blankets, go put the stuff down, make sure the windows are shut.’”

A Philly Thrive marcher passes by the PES refinery.
A Philly Thrive marcher passes by the PES refinery. Credit: Sharon Kelly © 2020.

Sanders said that she'd moved for a while out of the neighborhood. When she returned, she was struck by the odors seeping from the refinery complex.

Then, five years later, her husband Ray was diagnosed with cancer, she said.

The smell is so bad it smells like it’s your stove. And him having cancer, it didn’t help,” she said. “We had no resources, money to move. I wanted to get up and run. My son wanted to leave. We didn’t have the money. Ray wasn’t working no more. I’m not working, I’m caretaking.”

Ray died of cancer nine months after the refinery blast, she continued. “They gave him five years to live, he was in remission about two times,” she said. “I buried Ray three months ago. That was my life.”

These last couple months I couldn’t even be there, because they wouldn’t let me in the hospital because of the COVID. So, we were robbed even of our last months,” Sanders said.

It’s just hard for me to think about — if we didn’t move back down here, if they took us serious, if money didn’t mean so much. If my life meant something to somebody,” she said. “It means something to me. But could it mean something to them?”

Philly Thrive members marched across the PES refinery site in South Philadelphia.
Philly Thrive members marched across the PES refinery site in South Philadelphia. Credit: Sharon Kelly © 2020.
 
Main image: A fenceline memorial at the PES refinery during a June 22 Philly Thrive protest. Credit: Sharon Kelly © 2020.
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