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One Year Later: Questions, Health Repercussions & Environmental Racism Linger from Oil Refinery Explosion
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One Year Later: Questions, Health Repercussions & Environmental Racism Linger from Oil Refinery Explosion

The PES Refinery Site has been sold to a promising redeveloper. Community members still have questions about accountability, health, and equity before redevelopment. 

On June 22nd, local residents and activists held a small demonstration outside the oil refinery in South Philadelphia to mark the one-year anniversary of the explosion. About 30 people gathered by the fence of the 1,300-acre property, with both celebration and grief on their minds.

“This was a major victory,” said Avery Broughton, an activist with Philly Thrive, the group who hosted the action. She was referring to the closure of the refinery. “But we’re here to open a new chapter of this fight.”

The oil refinery, which has stood in south Philadelphia for more than 150 years, used to be owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions. The explosion released more than 5,000 lbs. of toxic chemicals into the air and blew shrapnel clear across the Schuylkill River. Now, the refinery has been sold to new ownership – a Chicago-based company called Hilco Redevelopment.

“It’s good that Hilco got the contract; we fought for that,” said Sanija Aikens, who lives with her grandparents in the Grays Ferry area near the refinery during summers. “We went all the way to New York to the contract negotiations to make sure Hilco got this contract because they promised they wouldn’t use it as a refinery.”

South Philly Oil Refinery

Although the refinery closed, health impacts continue

The action last week was framed as a continuation of the uprisings against racism and police brutality that have swept the country over the past month. The area in Gray’s Ferry surrounding the refinery is predominantly Black, which means its detrimental effects are primarily leveled on the Black community.

“I worked there in the refinery, chipping dry oil out of there every day. I had to retire early for my health.”

Rodney Ray, a former worker at the refinery

Among the residents’ primary concerns is the site cleanup. Over its long lifetime, the refinery released massive amounts of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene into the air and water – frequently above the EPA’s legal limit. Generations of south Philly residents say they are experiencing the effects of this pollution.

“My grandma passed away of lung cancer,” said Rodney Ray, a former worker at the refinery who is now active with Philly Thrive. “I worked there in the refinery, chipping dry oil out of there every day. I had to retire early for my health.”

Several other people at the demonstration also recounted stories of how they had lost loved ones to cancer, which they believe was a result of the refinery’s pollution.

In keeping with those personal accounts, there’s evidence to suggest that the community surrounding the refinery is experiencing severe health repercussions from their proximity to the pollution. In 2017, Philly Thrive launched a campaign called #WeDecide, and surveyed more than 300 local residents on their feelings about the refinery, as well as their health.

They found that of the 314 respondents, more than a third had asthma at some point in their lives, and more than half had asthma, heart disease, cancer, a respiratory condition, or some combination. The national average for asthma in adults is 7.7%.

Benzene pollution is also harmful to the surrounding environment. When aquatic life is exposed to benzene, it can affect their ability to reproduce, and the chemical can also slow the growth of plant life or kill it. Though Sunoco claimed that contamination of the aquifer beneath the refinery was minor and would not reach the nearby rivers, the Department of Environmental Protection has not yet evaluated the extent of the contamination as of earlier this year, and expressed concern about the quality of groundwater in New Jersey in multiple documents.

All of these factors, for local residents, mean that the battle against the refinery is not over. At the demonstration Monday, they unveiled two new demands: first, that Hilco involve the local community and be transparent about the remediation process, and second, that the City Council not renew the Keystone Opportunity Zone tax status on the property that would expire in 2023. City Council, led by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, introduced legislation to renew the refinery’s largely tax-exempt status earlier this week.

Racial and environmental justice

PES refinery protest 2020

For those in attendance on Monday, the issue of the refinery ties deeply to the ongoing protests for racial justice that have swept the country over the last month, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We treat black people in the same way we treat the earth,” said .O, a local activist who doesn’t use their legal name. “This is about transforming our society into one of cooperation and imagination, rather than one of competition.”

Broughton characterized the refinery’s impact as emblematic of the larger issue of environmental racism. “Companies are more likely to put massive polluters into communities of color, like the oil refinery. People have passed away because of the air quality here. These communities are lower-income and their ability to pay these medical bills is not there.”

“These issues are so deeply connected,” Broughton added. “The refinery has caused Black deaths just like the cops do. The pollution is a silent killer. We need everyone to be aware.”

Hilco declined to comment on the demonstration, saying that the sale negotiations had to be finished through the courts. But Philly Thrive is gearing up for their “new phase” of action.

“Even the trees have a right to breathe,” said .O on Monday, invoking the stated theme of the demonstration. “Black people are experiencing modern-day lynching. We have to realize how powerful it is for us to breathe.”


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Greyson Van Arsdale
Greyson is a Philadelphia-based, transgender journalist who mostly covers political issues and public health. In his free time, he likes to cook for friends and develop recipes. View all posts by Greyson Van Arsdale

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