Philadelphia oil refinery to close following disastrous fire

July 2019 Refinery (Kimberly paynter:WHYY)

Protest rally outside the gates of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. (Kimberly Paynter / WHYY-TV)

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

Days after a devastating oil-refinery fire and explosion, Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) announced on June 26 that it would close the facility in 15 days. PES is the largest refinery on the East Coast, turning heavy shale oil from North Dakota into gasoline. But it is ridden with debt and only emerged from bankruptcy a year ago, after asking workers to give concessions on their contract. Nevertheless, the corporate owners have been able to squeeze huge profits out of the complex ($400 million in dividends before the recent bankruptcy).

Over 1000 oil workers have been given lay-off slips. About 100 non-union employees were let go immediately and with no prior notice; they were denied any severance pay. Union workers were told that, because of the “emergency,” they would lose their jobs in just two weeks—in spite of their contract and city and federal law, which require 60 days’ notice of lay-offs. Thousands of other contract workers will also be affected by the shutdown.

At 4 a.m. on June 21, people in the largely Black and working-class neighborhoods of South Philadelphia were awakened by a thunderous boom. A mushroom-shaped fire cloud rose above the PES refinery; it was of such magnitude that it could be observed from satellites in space. “I could see from my bedroom window something that almost looked like a nuclear disaster,” a local resident told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Over the next half hour, multiple explosions took place at a tank containing butane and propane. The fire continued to burn for two days, pouring thick black smoke over residential communities. It was the second fire in a week at the 150-year-old refinery

In the latest incident, the city barely dodged a catastrophe thanks to crucial safety procedures carried out by the oil workers. One quick-thinking worker was able to divert hydrofluoric acid from a tank near the fire. If the tank had been breached, it could have sent a cloud of the toxic substance for miles over thickly populated sections of the city, potentially killing or injuring thousands.

The former CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, Philip Rinaldi, has been talking with Democratic Party politicians in the effort to convince investors to “save the plant” by renewing its operation as a petro-chemical refining and storage center. But plans to prolong the life of the facility have been met with outrage by residents of the neighborhood and environmental activists.

On June 25, about 75 protesters, including many residents of the neighborhood, massed near the main gates to the refinery complex. Some residents participated in “telling their stories,” which included tragic accounts of their families’ suffering with asthma, cancer, and other debilities caused by the polluted environment.

The local environmental group Philly Thrive, which helped to organize the rally, conducted a survey among neighbors of the refinery last May and found that, among 314 respondents, over half had heart disease, cancer, or a respiratory condition. Almost 34 percent had asthma, compared to 19 percent in the city overall, and 8 percent nationally.

Speakers at the rally urged that the refinery grounds be cleaned up and re-used for the common good. Some spoke for restoring the area as parkland or a nature preserve, which could also provide space for community-owned renewable power-generation facilities.

The Rev. Gregory Holston of the faith-based activist group POWER said, “This is a wake-up call for Philadelphia! We not only demand that this refinery be closed, but we demand that the city prohibit Philadelphia Gas Works from opening its proposed gas-refining plant nearby” (a project that the city council recently approved despite widespread opposition).

While correctly standing up for the jobs of its members, the Steelworkers union leadership has countered the call by area residents to permanently close the refinery. Ryan O’Callaghan, president of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, which represents 614 workers at the plant, told WHYY-TV that “those who are calling for the refinery to be shut down, I don’t think they realize the amount of people that rely on this refinery’s operations for part or all of their salary.”

However, it is the big capitalists and banks—and not environmentalists—who want to eliminate the jobs of the PES refinery workers. Many in the environmental movement have sought ways to make common cause with the workers’ struggle. Speakers at the June 25 protest rally and subsequent meetings have acknowledged that converting the economy away from reliance on fossil fuels would require a “just transition” for oil workers, in which they would be retrained and hired to work in the field of sustainable energy.

The site of the refinery, on the banks of the Schuylkill River, was once a verdant area of sheep meadows and wetlands, with several creeks running through it. Several inns and hotels operated there in the 18th and early 19th centuries, serving sports fishermen, hunters, and holidaymakers who came from the city to enjoy the beauties of nature. But the environment changed as industrial uses became established in the late 19th century.

The Atlantic Refining Company (later ARCO) built an oil refinery on the river in 1870, and Gulf Oil opened one nearby in 1926. Both refineries were purchased and merged by Sunoco in 1988 and 1994. Finally, PES was founded on the combined property in 2005, when Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners and the Carlyle Group (an investment firm frequently tied to the war armaments industry) “rescued” the refinery from bankruptcy. The PES investors received a state-supported package that included designating the complex as a tax-free zone, over $25 million in grants, and environmental liability waivers.

For many years, the PES refinery and its predecessors have been Philadelphia’s largest single polluter. It is responsible for 70 percent of the city’s particulate air pollution, according to one study. It is also the largest single source of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which are associated with causing or exacerbating asthma, and carcinogens like benzene, toluene, and xylene.

The refinery is likewise the area’s largest single source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change. The city’s draft Clean Energy Vision document states that the refinery “accounts for nearly 16 percent of Philadelphia’s carbon footprint, not including the fossil fuel products exported off-site.”

The company has never been in compliance with the Clean Air Act, though it has been punished with little more than a slap on the wrist, paying $649,417 over the past five years for Clean Air violations.

Christina Simeone, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a paper last September that pointed out, “The soil and groundwater at the site are heavily contaminated” with gasoline, benzene, lead, and other toxic materials. She said that some contaminants have probably made their way far from the refinery and could even impact a drinking water aquifer in New Jersey.

The plant has been cited for releasing chemicals into the ground and sewers, and draining polluted water from a holding pond into the Schuylkill River. But again, fines have been minimal. The former owner, Sunoco, has been working on remediation of the site since 2003, monitored by the state, though many believe that the effort is completely inadequate. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered a vast clean-up of the refinery complex after nearby residents complained of a petroleum smell in their houses. The remediation process took six years to “complete,” although the area is still highly polluted.

The refinery sits in a floodplain, and the site is quite likely to be inundated in future decades as sea level continues to rise under climate change. Unfortunately, remediating and restoring the land will potentially take many years, and the fear is that the public will be saddled into paying for it while the big oil barons who are responsible for the mess grab their profits and make a getaway.

The oil industry has been heavily subsidized while it despoils the land and sea, ravages our health, and threatens the stability of the planet with climate change. Now is the time, as we face an unprecedented climate emergency, to demand that the entire fossil fuel industry be nationalized under the control of the workers and oppressed communities so that it can be converted to sustainable energy sources.