By Charles Ellison | ecoWURD Managing Editor | opinion
The massive Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery explosion and fire that ripped through South Philadelphia in late June has, up until recently, been viewed as just another everyday American infrastructure failure. City officials, including the Mayor’s office and Philadelphia’s health department have not only attempted to reassure a wary public that since no one was hurt the situation is relatively under control, but they have also put great emphasis on the loss of an estimated 1,000 refinery jobs and surrounding small businesses that, reportedly, relied on the presence of refinery staff and workers.
Yet, from the public official perspective, not much emphasis has been placed on the fact that this was not an isolated incident, that the refinery has been a danger to surrounding communities and the entire city, and that people have been getting hurt by that refinery for quite a long time. In some cases, high incidents of cancer in neighboring communities have resulted in some of the highest mortality rates in Philadelphia. Given the proximity of that refinery, the largest and oldest of its kind in the United States, to residential neighborhoods, this latest disaster represents a new wrinkle in the ongoing discussion over the disproportionate exposure of vulnerable Black, Brown and low income populations to heavy polluting chemical and fossil fuel sites.
Philadelphia is a city of 1.6 million where nearly half the population identifies as Black. The PES refinery, according to the NAACP’s 2017 “Fumes Across the Fence Line” report:
… is responsible for 72 percent of the toxic air emissions in Philadelphia, which contributes largely to a citywide child-hood asthma rate that is more than two times the national average.62 Toxics released from the refinery include ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, and sulfuric acid, which cause effects ranging from headaches to cancer.
Chronic disease rates are rather high. Local environmental advocacy group PhillyThrive has been highlighting this for years now, capturing it in a 2017 survey of residents around the PES refinery, finding that:
- 33.9% of participants living near the refinery had asthma at some point in their life, compared to the national average of 7.7%1.
- 52.6% of respondents living near the refinery had one or more of the following health conditions: asthma, heart disease, cancer, or another respiratory condition.
- 82% of respondents expressed negative feelings about the PES refinery, with the top critique being that it’s dangerous, a hazard and a health concern.
- 95% of people who live near the refinery wanted the city to consider having polluters like PES pay for the damages they have caused.
It is particularly bad when an authoritative national report on toxic pollution sites that impact Black populations highlights the PES refinery as one of the top five offenders. Here are some glaring infographics from the NAACP report which underscore that fact:
In addition, cancer mortality rates are among the highest in the area where the PES plant is situated in Philadelphia, according to the Philadelphia health department’s own disease mapping data …
This is not at all an unusual occurrence. It is a tragic constant in places where there are high concentrations of Black, Brown, Indigenous and other populations. A recent 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) report shows glaring pollution inequity impacting Black and Latino populations, as well ….
Researchers note further that …
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution exposure is the largest environmental health risk factor in the United States. Here, we link PM2.5 exposure to the human activities responsible for PM2.5 pollution. We use these results to explore “pollution inequity”: the difference between the environmental health damage caused by a racial–ethnic group and the damage that group experiences. We show that, in the United States, PM2.5 exposure is disproportionately caused by consumption of goods and services mainly by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic minorities. On average, non-Hispanic whites experience a “pollution advantage”: They experience ∼17% less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption. Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption. The total disparity is caused as much by how much people consume as by how much pollution they breathe. Differences in the types of goods and services consumed by each group are less important. PM2.5 exposures declined ∼50% during 2002–2015 for all three racial–ethnic groups, but pollution inequity has remained high.
Hence, the recent oil refinery explosion in Philly should not be viewed as one in a string of incidents of national infrastructure failure requiring repair. It should offer an opportunity for a revived local and national discussion on the public health consequences of the fossil fuel supply chain and the unequal, uneven distribution of pollution from that supply chain based on race and zip code.
Recent public conversations facilitated by the mayor’s office – now known as the “PES Refinery Advisory Working Group” – can create an optimal quality of life model that sets an example for our region and the rest of the nation: what does it mean to live, work, provide and prosper in a clean, just and safe environment for ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our children.
Which is a key reason why a refinery and massive legacy polluter such as the PES refinery should remain shut down, permanently. While the circumstances which led to its demise are spectacular and unfortunate, Philadelphians should feel fortunate that the city’s largest air polluter is finally out of operation. We can easily reflect on just how bad that refinery was for the people who lived around it and the entire city that suffered from it.
But it’s now time to create an opportunity to really innovate for a clean energy and completely healthy future.
We must, first, be completely honest with ourselves as a city: this refinery is a prime example of the disproportionate exposure of vulnerable, mostly Black populations to heavy polluting chemical and fossil fuel sites. This is a national trend.
A city like Philadelphia can defy that trend and create something completely new by keeping the refinery closed and ensuring the land is not sold for future oil or natural gas operations. must defy that trend by keeping the refinery shut down. In doing so, city priority should be the health and safety of residents and alleviating the years of personal, emotional, and economic cost communities within living distance of that site suffered as a result of the refinery’s operation. The workers at the refinery can easily transition elsewhere into the region’s alarmingly growing natural gas sector in this region or, even better, easily transfer their skills towards building new Clean Energy infrastructure throughout Philadelphia. But, the countless lives of those suffering or now passed on from respiratory illness, asthma, cancer and other chronic public health conditions can’t be replaced.
Philly cannot put itself in a position of compromising residents by actively considering the revival of a place that is responsible for nearly three quarters of toxic air emissions in Philadelphia, that owes nearly $4 billion in unpaid taxes and has, for years, flagrantly defied Clean Air Act standards. The Mayor boasts that his goal is to have Philly completely run on renewable or clean energy by 2030 – yet, his administration is allowing the expansion of more methane-leaking natural gas infrastructure through projects such as the SEPTA natural gas plant in North Philly and the PGW natural gas plant in Southwest Philly, while still open to the hope that the PES refinery is resurrected into more unhealthy natural gas in the future.
How do you go completely renewable energy in 20 years while, at the same time, your city continues to choke on fossil fuel pollution?
There are no real “trade offs” in this situation. It is simply the will and the resources to bring a new vision to Philly. Clean it up and transition the site into a fully operational solar energy farm or even a hydro-power site that powers the city versus killing it. Calculate the taxes owed by PES and explore potential restitution for sick residents and families. Turn this into a major economic power play for Philly that puts it on a global map, while using it as the impetus for an ambitious and successful 21st century “green economy” that puts Philly’s unemployed, underemployed and vulnerable to work. Don’t show the world what Philly has always been bad at – show the world what a creative, innovative and sensible Philly can be its best at. That starts with not allowing that refinery to operate for another century ever again.