by Lynn Robinson | Guest oped | Neighbors Against the Gas Plants
We’ve all had that moment. We’ve all experienced it:a certain, embarrassing social situation when
you’re enclosed in a room with someone else or other people – and either you or one of those people
pass gas … a “silent but deadly.” Clinically known as flatulence. And you know that being
enclosed in a room, when you or someone else passed it (that “silent but deadly”), it was awkward
to do or say anything.
That’s what happened in City Council recently when the fracking industry used SEPTA to
pass gas on our city. It was a very awkward affair.
It was too awkward for any Philadelphia lawyer or environmental engineer to risk defending our
organization’s (Neighbors Against the Gas Plants) appeal to the air permit for SEPTA’s gas power
plant, in Nicetown, and too awkward for certain funded organizations and universities to discuss it,
or speak up. After all, it was SEPTA – and, according to SEPTA’s own public opinion surveys,
everyone supposedly loves SEPTA.
The ongoing development of a “natural” gas plant in North Philadelphia is nothing less than a form of corrosive feudalism. But there is a serf counter movement on the rise. Growing numbers of residents are becoming more aware. SEPTA’s power plant in Nicetown has grown its sunflower stem of scientific enlightenment, past the shunning daisies behind opaque veils, and has emerged, instead, as a symbol for the beginning of the end of environmental racism. Nicetown residents, who don’t need to identify as liberal to imagine bad air quality choking their quality of life and progress, have surprised a dismissive aristocracy with articulate passion for their children’s health
They are simply demanding their constitutional right to breathe clean air.
There’s a new coalition forming in Philadelphia determined to address climate change and environmental justice head-on. That means getting our city, our home, off of fossil fuels, including natural gas. It means reversing course on the trend radiating from the fracking fields, which has been pushing natural gas power plants, vehicles, and single use plastics made from gas.
The new coalition is also saying no to projects like SEPTA’s power plant in Nicetown and Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) proposed Liquified Natural Gas plant in SW Philadelphia. In the case of the latter, the PGW gas facility would actually enlarge the city’s gas infrastructure, and encourage more gas usage here and elsewhere.
We’re pressuring PGW, especially its chair, City Councilman Derek Green, to redefine PGW’s mission. It must transition the city to renewable energy technologies and stop using gas. This transition would actually grow the economy and help the environment: it would provide many local jobs, add solar panels to all flat roofs, and retrofit buildings with better insulation and electric or geothermal heat. Councilman Green finally announced that in January or February there will be a City Council hearing about the PGW’s mission.
Perhaps it’s time to change its name and take the word “gas” out of it altogether.
You may have heard that natural gas is a transition fuel, or something that is “clean.” There’s no such thing as clean gas. Certainly, when natural gas burns it creates less CO2 than coal and oil. But the process, from drill site to end use, involves methane leaks and makes gas usage more warming to the atmosphere than any other fossil fuel in existence.
The founder of the coalition to stop PGW’s LNG plant, 350 Philadelphia, first sounded the alarm on another gas plant: the SEPTA site in Nicetown. A year later, Neighbors Against the Gas Plants rose up as both partner and a local voice from the one mile radius. Once in operation, that plant would make people sick and exacerbate current health conditions that have already deteriorated. Many diseases are attributable to local air quality. The plant is built now and appeals hearings are ongoing.
The reason SEPTA decided to produce its own energy was to appease politicians in Harrisburg, PGW leadership, and possibly some of its board members who are involved with the natural gas industry. SEPTA committed to buying gas, and to build natural gas power plants in Philadelphia that would produce electricity for regional trains. Since PECO has been adequately supplying power, SEPTA set about creating justifications for this switch from PECO.
For their first gas plant, SEPTA chose their Midvale property in Nicetown, close to Wayne Junction. It’s not an accident that Nicetown is a low income, predominantly African American neighborhood. By convenient design, toxic dumping is usually forced on such populations which often lack resources to fight back.
It’s called environmental racism.
I live next door to Nicetown, in Germantown. On winter rush hour mornings, the air outside
is even offensive to my cat. In summer, air conditioning cannot provide the missing oxygen my body craves. I see my neighbors slump around, or resting, head bowed, on porches, looking miserable. One neighbor across the street actually survives on an oxygen tank.
Don’t blame asthma on lifestyle choices. One Neighbors Against the Gas Plant member grew up by the refinery. Before the age of 2, a doctor performed a tracheotomy to enable her to resume breathing. Her severe asthma miraculously disappeared at age 19, when she moved away, to Mt. Airy.
There is no such thing as a safe or benign project that burns toxic materials. SEPTA marketed
their Nicetown plant as safe, based on a flawed computer model that used background air samples
from a greener neighborhood, 3.5 miles away, on Lycoming Ave.
Nicetown, chosen for the first of six SEPTA gas plants, is a low income and predominantly African
American neighborhood. Air Management Services, a division of the Philadelphia Health Department, issued the air permit without considering (or, perhaps, completely ignoring) its own department’s Community Health Assessments. Nicetown has the city’s second highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate: 31% of children are asthmatic. Adult asthma grew from
9.3% in 2000 to 25% in 2015. Nicetown and parts of North Philly have the highest mental illness,
cancer, and AIDS mortality rates.
Their own statistics don’t matter to them?
These diseases are attributable to local air quality. The EPA found Nicetown to have more exposure
to diesel exhaust than 90 – 95 percent of the nation’s neighborhoods, and more fine particle pollution than 78 percent of neighborhoods in the country. Even the state Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) deemed Nicetown an “Environmental Justice Area” or a “census tract where 20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is minority.” Not only is Nicetown one of the most economically distressed areas in the city, but it’s also more than 60 percent Black.
Even SEPTA’s transit employees union supports our appeal to revoke SEPTA’s air permit, because 700 employees work on SEPTA’s Midvale property. But the question stands: who is advocating for us, the 37,000 people living within the mile radius?
We’ve met with state politicians and some members of council. They responded by writing letters,
speaking at our appeals hearing, and Councilwoman Cindy Bass published a June editorial in the Philadelphia Tribune. Recently, the City Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services held a hearing on environmental disparities and heard public testimonies on environmental justice. SEPTA’s gas plant came up repeatedly. We asked for legislative action to keep the plant from firing up.
In December, Physicians for Social Responsibility submitted a resolution to the chairs of those
committees, Councilwomen Bass and Reynolds Brown. No response yet. As Eric Marsh,
Nicetown resident and father of an asthmatic daughter, said in his testimony, “Where’s the Beef?
Where’s the beef at City Council?”
Can Council admit the awkward mistake of 2016, when it supported SEPTA’s gas plants as good for
Philadelphia Gas Works? The Kenney administration will not lead on this. His loyal defense of SEPTA’s project denies the science that methane leaks make natural gas the most climate warming of all fossil fuels.
It’s perfect timing for new people to step up to the plate. Elongated appeals hearings were crafted to
discourage the public. So, the public must show up! The next hearing takes place on January 8th, 10AM 1515 Arch St. 18th floor.
And sign a petition: energyjustice.net/SeptaGasPlant. Encourage organizations to sign 350Philadelphia’s coalition letter to prevent PGW’s proposal for a Liquified Natural Gas Plant at its
Passyunk SW Philly property.
SEPTA has absolutely no need for new power plants to run trains. It simply came under pressure to
buy natural gas. The real question is: Does SEPTA have a choice about being a natural gas
customer? It always has. And we, as residents, are exercising our choice to remind them.
LYNN ROBINSON is a North Philadelphia resident and Director of Neighbors Against the Gas Plants