Two Years After a Huge Refinery Fire in Philadelphia, a New Day Has Come for its Long-Suffering Neighbors

The petroleum smell is gone, the benzene emissions are being monitored and residents in nearby neighborhoods of color feel they’re finally being heard.

General view after a massive fire erupted at a crude oil refinery that triggered several large explosions at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex on June 21, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

General view after a massive fire erupted at a crude oil refinery that triggered several large explosions at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex on June 21, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

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Dorthia Pebbles inhaled harmful pollutants and smelled noxious odors from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery for years when she would leave her rowhome on Hoffman Street to walk to the corner store. 

After losing family members to cancer, she and her neighbors who lived across the street from the massive South Philadelphia refinery, once the largest on the East Coast, couldn’t help but conclude that its emissions were giving them asthma and threatening their health in even more serious ways. But no one from the refinery or the city ever gave them any information, or seemed to care. 

Then one night in June 2019, the refinery exploded, creating a whole new set of hazards and issues for the neighbors to wrestle with.

“The most recent explosion woke us up out of our sleep,” said Pebbles. “But hearing that it will not be a refinery anymore is good. A lot of people ended up with cancer from the neighborhood.” 

Two years after the explosion, Pebbles and other nearby residents said in interviews that relations with the site’s new owner, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which bought the 1,300-acre property in bankruptcy court last year, have improved and led to talks involving cleanup of the site and jobs.  

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Philly Thrive, a non-profit that organized neighborhood opposition to the refinery well before the explosion, is part of a coalition of community groups, the United South/Southwest Coalition for Healthy Communities, negotiating a community benefits agreement with Hilco built upon transparency and community reinvestment. And Kenyatta Johnson, a local City Council member, has devised an economic opportunity plan with Hilco that requires 50 percent minority participation at all levels of the redevelopment, involving everyone from workers to executives.

Alexa Ross, Philly Thrive’s campaign coordinator, said the group’s recent activities around the refinery site have involved “mobilizing and educating residents about the contamination of the refinery land because there is a lot of misinformation or misunderstanding about the specifics of the toxins left over from the refinery’s pollution.” 

With a massive cleanup effort underway to remove asbestos lining from pipes and remediate soil fouled by petroleum spills, underground beneze pools and contaminated groundwater, the site could become a test case for the Biden administration’s goal of ensuring that 40 percent of government spending on infrastructure and clean energy go to benefit so-called environmental justice communities. 

Since the South Philadelphia Oil Refinery exploded two years ago, hydrogen fluoride (HF) and hydrofluoric acid, highly toxic gases used to produce a gasoline additive called alkylate that boosts octane, have been banned by the city. The explosion released 5,239 pounds of hydrofluoric acid, which can form low-lying, fog-like clouds that can sicken, and sometimes even kill, workers and nearby residents. 

HF’s presence underscored the disproportionate impact of pollution from the refinery on communities of color. Neighborhoods within a three-mile radius of the refinery site are 61 percent composed of people of color, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. 

What happens at the site is critical because the property takes up a vast swath of southwest Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River. Hilco executives said they understand how significant the redevelopment will be to the surrounding neighborhoods, promising thousands of jobs in a city where one in four residents lives below the poverty line.

Although Hilco is only now starting to dismantle and tear down the old refinery, Councilman Johnson said he is making sure that the firm is only beginning to redevelop non-toxic spaces, since it can’t determine exactly what land is uncontaminated.  In an April report, the Environmental Integrity Project found that cleanup activities at the site in 2020 were still producing emissions of benzene, a carcinogen, that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level.” 

“Most importantly, we want to aggressively make sure that the remediation of the site is the number one priority, just so my neighbors can feel safe and that there is no contamination on the site,” Johnson said.

The ‘Right to Breathe’ Campaign

Philly Thrive started organizing the residents living around the refinery in 2015 with its Right to Breath campaign when it became evident that the pollution from the aging facility was directly affecting their health and that the oil and gas industry was planning to expand operations in Philadelphia.

At the beginning of June 2019, Philly Thrive and residents were trying to stop construction of a new $60 million liquified natural gas plant on city land close to the refinery. In mid-June, the City Council approved the facility by a vote of 13-4. A week later, the refinery erupted after a leak from a corroded pipe touched off a series of explosions and a massive fire that burned throughout the following day. 

After Hilco acquired the site in bankruptcy court in February 2020 and announced plans to demolish the refinery and build the industrial park, Philly Thrive began a new campaign in October, called Right to Thrive, built upon four goals—to have decisions led by community members, create “family-sustaining union jobs” for neighborhood residents as part of the redevelopment, clean up the air, soil and water at the site, and invest in nearby Grays Ferry and other nearby city neighborhoods “to begin addressing the years of racist wealth extraction.” 

In the campaign’s first phase, using “Nothing About Us Without Us” as its slogan, Philly Thrive mobilized hundreds of residents to request a stronger cleanup process at the refinery site.

Philly Thrive and the coalition of community groups also sought a commitment to transparency in communication and accountability from the new companies at the site, to make sure residents are not deprived of information about the ambitious redevelopment. The agreement makes clear that transparency of communication is just as important as transparency in job opportunities.

 Philly Thrive ran virtual teach-ins to explain information about the contamination in terms that make sense to everyday people and made sure they had access to the internet. Organizers also encouraged residents to raise their voices and tell Hilco executives and environmental regulators what they think is important about the clean up.

Rodney Ray, a Philly Thrive organizer who is a retired refinery worker, is part of a union apprenticeship program for neighborhood residents launched by Hilco with the construction trades called the Construction Apprentice Preparatory Program, which began in May for 15 apprentices in a 15-week program. A second, 26-week program will begin in mid-July. 

Ray said the Hilco development could ultimately create thousands of jobs.  

A ‘Massive Undertaking

At a community meeting in early June, Hilco executives told more than 100 residents that dismantling the old refinery, a vast tangle of pipelines, tanks and smokestacks, was a “massive undertaking” that would take four years and involve removing 35,000 tons of asbestos, 850,000 barrels of hydrocarbons, 100 buildings and 950 miles of pipes, WHYY reported.  

Hiclo's sign on the outside of the refinery. Credit: Daelin Brown/Inside Climate News
Hiclo’s sign on the outside of the refinery. Credit: Daelin Brown/Inside Climate News

“As South Philadelphia residents know all too well, the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) site has dominated the nearby landscape for nearly 150 years and was once the largest single source of pollution in our city,” Jasmine Sessoms, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Hilco, said in a later interview.

Sessoms said Hilco is working  “to clean up the site, bring back stable, good-paying jobs and provide other community benefits like scholarships, educational programs and job training opportunities.”

Hilco, based in Chicago and known for redeveloping power plants and other old industrial sites,  has been conducting quarterly public community meetings and issuing a bi-monthly community newsletter, Sessoms said. 

Hilco has also established the Career Connected Learning Program, a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia and the city. The program provides internships for students— both summer and year-round—as well as job-shadowing opportunities and career fairs to educate students and help them to develop skills for employment at the new site. 

Hilco envisions a vast complex of giant warehouses similar to the project for which it is best known, called Tradepoint Atlantic at the site of an old Bethlehem Steel plant near Baltimore. The complex includes warehouses belonging to Amazon, FedEx, Home Depot, Volkswagen and Under Armour, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

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Johnson, the City Council member, said he is committed to making sure Hilco keeps its end of the bargain in terms of providing community benefits it is negotiating with Philly Thrive, the Packer Park Civic Association and other members of the community coalition, as well with the minority participation plan he has worked out with the company. 

“I’ve advocated a 50 percent minority, diversity inclusion agreement as a part of their proposal to make sure that Black and Brown contractors, workers, professional servicers are a part of the overall plan to develop the site,” Johnson said.

Finally Taking Residents’ Health Concerns Seriously

Back in Southwest Philadelphia, a few blocks from the refinery’s perimeter,  residents on Dickinson and South 31 Streets were all happy to hear that the refinery is being torn down. Finally, they said their health concerns are being taken into consideration. 

A real estate agent in the area, Jerry Santos, said residents are no longer being “pushed to the curb,” and that “higher authorities are finally taking these residents’ health into consideration.” 

“I know how bad the chemicals in the air can be,” he said. 

Bruce Martin, 62, who lives on 31st Street, singled out the work Ray, from Philly Thrive, is doing with Council member Johnson “to make sure that our community gets jobs at this new site” because he and his neighbors were the ones “most deeply affected by the refinery being there.” 

Philly Thrive and members of the community gathered at a small park across from the refinery at Passyunk Avenue and 28th Street in late June to remember the lives that have been affected by the refinery and lost to cancer on the second anniversary of the explosion.

Generations of families came out to the ceremony to tell their stories about the explosion and the harm to their health from the refinery—asthma, eye problems, lung cancer and more. The ceremony ended with children shooting water in the air with squirt guns to show that  transformation is coming. 

For residents like Dorthia Pebbles, remembering a grandmother lost to cancer, the ceremony had a special meaning. She and her neighbors seemed to matter, for a change. A walk to the corner store was no longer hazardous to her health.