South Philly refinery is a hazard for community

The refinery complex was the largest polluter in the city before its explosion in June 2019.

The Temple University SEPTA regional rail train station, located at 10th and Berks streets, is utilized by many students who commute to school or work. | JEREMY ELVAS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

On June 21, 2019, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refining complex in South Philadelphia exploded, releasing 5,000 pounds of deadly chemicals and ejecting a 38,000 pound piece of shrapnel across the Schuylkill River, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“I heard it happen and I drove right down there,” said Steven Cedrone, 42, a longtime resident of South Philadelphia. “I was shocked, you know: I’ve lived here all my life and I never thought anything of it.”

The refinery is full of dangerous and outdated machinery, and poses a massive health and environmental threat — it needs to be torn down.

“The refinery should not be reopened, I think we dodged a very big bullet,” said Christina Rosan, a geography and urban studies professor at Temple University.

Before the explosion, the refinery was the greatest producer of refined gasoline, diesel and jet fuel of any East Coast refinery, the New York Times reported. It was also the single-largest source of pollution in Philadelphia at the time, accounting for approximately 16 percent of the city’s carbon footprint, according to a 2017 report by the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability.

Local air-quality-monitoring stations do not show a significant decrease in air pollution in the six months since the refinery shut down, the Inquirer reported. This is especially concerning given the refinery is located within a few miles of the homes of 113,000 people, the Inquirer further reported.

The refinery closed and filed for bankruptcy in July following the explosion, Philly Voice reported.

The land and existing infrastructure are currently up for bid by a number of other companies, including Hilco Redevelopment Partners, a Chicago real estate firm, the Inquirer reported on Friday. The future of the refinery, and whether it’ll be reopened or demolished, is still unclear, as the results of the auction have not been disclosed yet.

When the initial explosion occurred, it almost sprayed hydrofluoric acid, a corrosive chemical compound, into the atmosphere, but was saved by an employee, who closed the valve. If they didn’t, the explosion could have potentially led to wide-reaching effects on the surrounding neighborhoods.

That’s not the only environmental hazard that the refinery poses either.

“[Under the refinery] there is a literal lake of oil, it has been used as an oil refinery for over 160 years,” said Russell Zerbo, an advocate with the Clean Air Council, a regional public health nonprofit focusing on Philadelphia. “In a positive situation we would have an aquifer or groundwater under us at all times. It just so happens that the aquifer around the refinery is not so much water but oil.” 

With all the infrastructure and machinery in place, it is hard to imagine how the site could be revamped.

Regardless of the refinery’s future, it is a danger to its surrounding neighborhoods. Between old, corroded machinery, contaminated land and the area’s environmental future, the site poses an imminent threat to anyone who lives in Philadelphia and the surrounding area.

“Philadelphia has the biggest deep poverty of any city in the country,” Zerbo said. “The people in the deepest poverty will always be the people who feel environmental issues the hardest.”

The refinery needs to be closed — not resold — for the benefit of the communities who are placed in danger by its significant environmental hazards.

1 Comment

  1. Under sunoco, gulf, Chevron, arco, Atlantic richfield, and other companies the refinery has been a large economic boon to the city with minimal pollution. Its unfair to judge the facility based on the way Philadelphia energy Solutions ran it. They were an investment group. They ran it to maximize profit at the cost of the environment and workforce. With decent management and ownership, the place can thrive again.

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