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A “New Beginning” for Environmental Justice – or More of the Same, Toxic, Hot Air?
Opinion

A “New Beginning” for Environmental Justice – or More of the Same, Toxic, Hot Air?

An op-ed on air pollution at the former PES Refinery from the United South/Southwest Coalition for Healthy Communities

It would seem our state is having a bit of an environmental justice “moment.” In October, Governor Wolf and lawmakers announced the Office of Environmental Justice as a permanent agency and legislation to increase protections for communities impacted by environmental harms, often low-income communities of color. Around the same time, the City opened applications for the first Environmental Justice Advisory Commission, created to “ensure residents with the lived experience [of environmental harms]…are at the decision-making table,” according to Mayor Kenney.

These are hard fought victories from the perspective of environmental justice activists and communities who have been enduring health issues, losing loved ones, and raising our voices on harm that’s too often left to continue. I’ve walked up more front steps in Eastwick than I can count giving out flyers about flood protections or the landfill cleanup, and I know community leaders in every South and Southwest neighborhood who have been doing the same thing with the PES refinery’s pollution, unhealthy building conditions, illegal dumping– you name it. There’s been a hefty price to pay for the lag in government responsiveness, but the tide is finally turning and there’s no time to waste for continued action.

Corporations are hopping on the bandwagon too – one of those being the redeveloper of the former PES refinery site, Hilco Redevelopment Partners. The globally-owned real estate company purchased the Southwest Philadelphia refinery site out of bankruptcy in 2020, and you may have caught their ads on the radio, printed on SEPTA buses, or on billboards across the city. Hilco’s gone to lengths to communicate their promise of a greener, carbon-free “New Beginning” for Philadelphia through the Bellwether District redevelopment, a name that references the leadership they intend to offer.

But after all this forward motion, Hilco and the City are poised to backslide so soon on their environmental advances. This week ends a public comment period on air pollution permits that Hilco is pursuing from the City’s Air Management Services. One of the permits is for the pollution that would come from continuing to operate the petroleum “tank farm”, as well as the docks and railyard that allows the import and export of oil products. The largest part of the tank farm is closest to Eastwick, my neighborhood.

The oil tanks on the property can hold a combined 360 million gallons of high-emissions petroleum products. Many of these tanks were installed in the 1950s, and even the newest in the 1980s. These old, and exceptionally large storage tanks leak passive air pollutants around the clock, which was one explanation for air monitors picking up on benzene levels at three times the limit after the refinery was closed. Benzene is one of the chemicals that’s been causing cancer in neighborhoods surrounding the refinery for generations, which remains 70% nonwhite according to data accessed from the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Justice Areas Viewer.

If the City and Hilco are genuinely stepping up to advance environmental justice, this issue is a lobbed softball. The tank farm has every element of a textbook example. If Hilco and the City thought it unacceptable to expose a low-income community of color to additional years of toxic air pollution, the permits and plans for the tank farm would not advance. Hilco would decommission the tank farm, ending petroleum storage on site as part of their broader carbon free transformation, and meaningfully engage impacted residents in the challenging work of planning for sustainable development. The City would not rubber stamp the permits. 

Over 20 organizations based in neighborhoods surrounding the former refinery site have organized ourselves to advocate during the redevelopment, and we do not want to breathe fumes from oil storage tanks anymore. Hilco’s tanks are in the same floodplain that sent water down I-76 last year, which makes this decision even clearer (just ask Eastwick residents whose homes are still damaged from 2020 flooding). Mayor Kenney wants impacted residents to be part of decision-making and Hilco wants a new beginning. Well, residents are saying no to the tank farm and let’s get to work on the new beginning. 

A public hearing Wednesday at 6pm ends the comment period on the tank farm permits before the City’s Air Management Services makes a decision. You can read the permits on the City’s website, register to attend the hearing at this link, and anyone can sign up to comment during the hearing.

Earl Wilson, President of Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition, on behalf of the United South/Southwest Coalition for Healthy Communities. The Coalition is made up of 20+ organizations based in neighborhoods surrounding all sides of the former refinery site and is pursuing a Community Benefits Agreement with Hilco Redevelopment Partners and accountability for nearby residents at every stage of the redevelopment.

Members of the United South/Southwest Coalition include:

African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA)

Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze

Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition

Eastwick United

Empowered Community Development Corporation

Friends of Historic FDR Park

Friends of Penrose

Friends of Queen Memorial Library

Friends of Stinger Square Park

Girard Estate Neighbors Association

Packer Park Civic Association

Philadelphia Liberation Center

Philly Thrive

The Pinnwheel Group

Point Breeze Community Development Coalition

Point Breeze Civic Association

Southwest Community Development Corporation

Tasker Street Missionary Baptist Church – Community Outreach Corporation

Walk in the Light Christian Center

West Passyunk Neighbors Association

40th Ward Republican RCO


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Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake. View all posts by Julie Hancher

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