One minute, the 3-year-old was playing tag in the grass—her braided hair bouncing with each step—while the hulking remains of a 150-year-old oil refinery loomed nearby. Then, suddenly, she couldn’t breathe.
Many residents here in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia live with asthma and other chronic health conditions that they, advocates and even some medical experts attribute to the close proximity of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery, which was destroyed in an explosion in June 2019 and closed shortly afterward.
Now, at a recent gathering of her neighbors and environmentalists in a local park to celebrate the refinery’s closure, the toddler was experiencing an asthma attack. When an inhaler offered no relief, family members rushed her to a nearby hospital where she was treated, released and made a full recovery.
“Look at all the damage that’s been done,” the toddler’s grandmother, Sheryl Russell, 45, said of the health ailments that many residents trace to the refinery. “And it’s, like, where do they pay? They need to pay for that.”
The closure of the 1,300-acre refinery here—once the largest on the East Coast—had been cheered as a major victory for those working at the intersection of equity, social justice and environmentalism. Yet in the three years since the refinery closed, the kind of sustained change sought by residents and environmental activists has proved elusive.
Despite the refinery’s closure and demolition, the site where it once stood is still emitting harmful chemicals. Last month, the results of an analysis near the former plant were published showing that legacy pollution in the form of benzene—a chemical linked to cancer and other illnesses—was twice the federal threshold and at the second-highest levels in the country.
A coalition of residents and activists and the developers who now own the refinery site have been involved in tense negotiations over a neighborhood investment and revitalization plan that helps accelerate the approval process so that development projects at the former plant can move forward. Despite assurances by the site’s new owners, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, some neighbors are concerned about the possibility of future industrial work there that could negatively impact the community.
And residents—who, for nearly eight generations, have dealt with adverse health conditions—are worried about the lingering effects of the cleanup operations at the former refinery, which first opened five years after the last enslaved people were liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation.
Russell knows firsthand the multi-generational effects that some in the neighborhood say the plant has had on their health: Russell, her daughter and her granddaughter all suffer from the same form of asthma, and her mother died of cancer in 2019. She acknowledged feeling a mixture of weariness, optimism, caution and rage.
“I’m hopeful,” she said, “but I’m angry at the same time.”
Many Owners, One Constant
The roots of neighbors’ concern can be traced to 1870, when the owners of the Atlantic Refining Co. identified wharfs on the Schuylkill River (pronounced: skoo-kill) in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia as the base for its oil production and shipping operations.
Atlantic Refining, which later went on to become known by the acronym Arco, operated the refinery for more than 100 years before selling it to Sunoco in the late 1980s. In 2012, the plant was sold to Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which held it until its closure.
Despite changing owners several times, the refinery site for many years was marked by one constant: pollution from decades of unchecked fossil fuel processing.
For years, researchers say, petroleum waste was poured directly into the soil at the refinery site. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered corrective action to clean up the site; the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection followed suit with a pair consent orders—which allowed the plant to continue operations while waste remediation was underway—in 1993 and 2003.
Black Americans are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in fenceline neighborhoods like Grays Ferry and Point Breeze adjacent to sites rife with pollution and toxic chemicals, according to a 2017 report from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force. Black people have also been subject to higher levels of pollution than whites, no matter their income, the EPA reported in 2018.
Much of that pollution comes from burning and refining fossil fuels, which releases into the air soot that has been associated with lung disease, asthma, heart disease and early death. In 2019, the American Lung Association issued a warning for Philadelphia, which is 40 percent Black: the air may be hazardous to your health, along with earlier EPA data establishing that the refinery, often operating in violation of its permits, produced a significant amount of that toxic air pollution.
Environmental officials now say the soil and groundwater at the site is primarily polluted with lead and hydrocarbons, such as benzene. Experts now expect the clean-up of the site to take the better part of a decade and cost upward of a billion dollars.
As the work of cleaning and eventually redeveloping the site continues, many neighbors say that they have been effectively shut out of the planning process to help determine the future of the site. Hilco Redevelopment Partners has unveiled plans for a new commercial and residential complex—which they’ve christened The Bellwether District—on the former plant site.
Residents who live in neighborhoods less than a mile from the refinery site, who are overwhelmingly African American, have complained that the developers have made half-hearted attempts to engage with the community and have taken steps like abruptly canceling in-person meetings and restricting updates to virtual Zoom calls with community members. (Hilco officials said they have been reluctant to hold in-person events because of concerns about Covid-19.)
“We want them to come to the table to have a conversation,” said Debbie Robinson, a 58-year-old resident who has been active in efforts to improve conditions at the refinery site. “There’s nothing wrong with sitting down and having a conversation. We might agree. We might not agree, but we need that.”
Robinson said she has restrictive lung disease, kidney disease and asthma and she’s needed an oxygen tank to breathe for the last six months. She attributes her ailments to having spent most of the last two decades living barely a mile from the old refinery site.
“I was fine,” Robinson said. “And then all of a sudden I’m on an oxygen machine and I don’t smoke.”
Jasmine Sessoms, senior vice president of corporate affairs for the developers, denied that residents were being excluded from the planning process and said that the new owners of the site were working to reduce emissions.
“It is not an overnight fix, but it is getting a lot better than what it was,” Sessoms said. “We probably aren’t moving nearly as fast as the community wants us to, but we need to do it in a safe manner and the proper way to do it right.”
Sessoms said the developers were open to working with residents to craft a community benefits agreement—a document that formalizes community support for development projects and can help speed up various municipal approvals. She noted that many residents may be wary of Hilco because of a mistrust of past owners of the site.
She also acknowledged the collective trauma that many in the community may still be facing. Some residents swear that they still smell refinery smoke and see wisps of exhaust even though Hilco removed the old smokestacks 10 months ago. Overall, more than 70 percent of the demolition has been completed.
“For so long the refinery loomed in these people’s backgrounds, and there is a mistrust of developers, especially in Black and brown communities,” Sessoms said. “So it is challenging to ease fears. But what we can do is one person at a time, continue the conversations, be transparent, be open, be honest, listen to the community’s feedback.”
‘They’re Dead, They’re Dead, They’re Dead’
Still some residents feel like they’ve been left in the dark.
“To be honest, I don’t know what’s going on,” said Sylvia Bennett, 78. “Hilco took over, so we don’t know what they’re doing now. We’re asking that when they rebuild, we want to know what they’re going to rebuild. And we, the community, don’t want any more fossil fuels. We want no more. We want to breathe healthy air. God gave us clean, fresh air, and that’s what we’re fighting for.”
As she spoke on a recent June afternoon, Bennett stood in Stinger Park—a community gathering place where the coalition held a public meeting and cookout—and recounted the neighbors she’s known who died after prolonged illnesses.
“They’re dead, they’re dead, they’re dead,” she said, punctuating each phrase by gesturing at one rowhouse after another. “People died around here from this.”
Even though Philadelphia is home to numerous top-ranked medical schools and hospitals and boasts one of the largest medical establishments in the country, environmentalists and advocates say they were not aware of any research studies examining whether pollution from the nation’s oldest and largest refinery disproportionately harmed nearby Black residents in Grays Ferry.
And some neighbors are concerned that those losses will continue. Many residents pointed to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project as a sign that those fears are not unfounded.
Researchers with the Environmental Integrity Project found that benzene emissions along the fenceline of the former plant were 28.1 micrograms per cubic meter at the end of 2020; that’s more than twice the federal threshold for corrective action—9 micrograms per cubic meter—and those measurements were recorded more than a year after the plant ceased operations.
Eric Schaeffer, the director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said he believes the benzene at the fenceline might be coming from residual pollution at the former refinery and from the cleanup that is underway, but it is not clear. He also noted that, using one standard, exposure to 3 micrograms per cubic meter of benzene over the course of nine years could lead to a compromised immune system and greater susceptibility to disease. In a sampling of a million people, Schaeffer said, a lifetime of exposure to a single microgram of benzene could lead to as many as eight more deaths from cancers than might otherwise be expected.
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And, Schaeffer said, benzene is likely not the only chemical being emitted. “Benzene is not the only thing that is getting across these refinery fencelines,” he said. “If you see benzene, you know that other pollutants are also traveling with that benzene and we don’t have data on that.”
Just as uncertain, neighbors and environmentalists say, is their role in the plans that developers have for the site.
R. Merriman-Goldring, a spokesperson for Philly Thrive, a local environmental group, says that residents understand that they may have to wait a bit longer than they might have expected to get some answers.
“Residents have known all along that you can’t just stop fighting, right?” said Merriman-Goldring, whose group is one of nearly two dozen groups working to improve conditions at the former refinery site. “It’s not, like, ‘Oh, we won and now they’re going to be nice to us.’ Like, that’s not how injustice and racism and violence works, you know?”
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