Philadelphia refinery explosion: The city narrowly avoided a catastrophe

July 2019 Refinery (Kimberly paynter-WHYY)
Nearby residents and environmental activists rally outside the PES refinery soon after the explosion in June. (Kimberly Paynter / WHYY-TV).

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

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 Philadelphia Energy Solutions (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, two more explosions took place in tanks 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—the largest on the East Coast, where heavy shale oil from North Dakota was turned into gasoline.

An Oct. 16 federal report reveals that Philadelphia only narrowly escaped a far worse catastrophe. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) confirmed that highly toxic hydrofluoric acid was released in the blast. The acid can destroy tissue and bone, and can kill with skin exposures of as little as 2.5% of body surface area. The CSB stated: “If inhaled, HF can cause severe lung injury and pulmonary edema—fluid in the lungs—which can result in death.”

PES estimated that 5239 pounds of HF was released during the explosion and fire. Of that, 1968 pounds was neutralized by a water-spraying safety device, while 3271 pounds escaped into the atmosphere. One quick-thinking worker was able to divert much more hydrofluoric acid from a tank near the fire before it could spread. Luckily, no serious injuries from the acid were recorded.

Previously, the refinery had notified federal regulators that a worst-case release of 71 tons of hydrofluoric acid could extend more than seven miles, potentially exposing a population of over one million to the deadly substance.

The explosions also sent fragments of the holding tanks flying in all directions. One 38,000-pound piece flew almost half a mile across the Schuylkill River, where it landed near the refinery’s petroleum tank farm. Two other massive pieces, weighing 23,000 pounds and 15,500 pounds, landed within the refinery grounds. If those projectiles had traveled in a different direction, they might have landed like artillery shells on residential neighborhoods—causing high casualties.

The explosion appears to have been precipitated by the rupture of an elbow joint in a pipe. After the incident, the CBC found that at its thinnest point, due to corrosion, the pipe measured merely .012 inches thick, 7% of the minimum allowed thickness, and about half the thickness of a credit card. Somehow, the pipe had escaped earlier CBC inspections.

Philadelphia’s largest polluter

The CBC report was the first time that government authorities had confirmed that hydrofluoric acid was released. One nearby resident, Carol Hemingway, a member of the environmental group Philly Thrive, complained to The Philadelphia Inquirer (Oct. 17): “I wish they would’ve talked to us and said, ‘You matter, and we are looking into this.’

Neighbors have been complaining about pollution from the refinery for years. Philly Thrive 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.

On June 25, about 75 protesters, including many residents of the neighborhood, rallied 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. Speakers 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.

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 in September 2018 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.

Workers laid off while executives collect bonuses

At this moment, the refinery has been closed by its owners, who claim that repairs to the complex would be too expensive for them to undertake. The corporation became strapped for cash soon after presenting $600 million in dividends to its stockholders, and declared bankruptcy in 2018. It only emerged from bankruptcy after asking workers to give concessions on their contract.

Soon after the explosion, over 1000 oil workers were given lay-off slips. About 100 non-union employees were let go immediately and with no prior notice. Workers received no severance pay, and their health insurance was canceled. Thousands of other contract workers are also affected by the shutdown.

At the same time that it laid off the workers, however, PES paid about $4.6 million in retention bonuses to eight key executives. Chief executive officer Mark Smith, hired only in August 2018, was given a $1.545 million bonus.

In August, PES announced that it was looking into selling the refinery to parties who might be interested in resuming operations. 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.

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 heedlessly eliminated 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 several community 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 one of Philadelphia’s beauty spots. It was 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 countryside air. 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 in 2012 that included designating the complex as a tax-free zone, over $25 million in grants, and environmental liability waivers. An additional $25 million in state and federal money was received in 2012-2014 to rebuild a catalytic converter and to increase the capacity of a railhead to accept shipments of oil from North Dakota.

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.

 

 

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