The operator of the East Coast’s biggest oil refinery announced Tuesday that they’re shuttering the 150-year-old Philly plant after an explosion Friday that rattled residents as far away as Delaware.
But there were plenty of problems before Friday.
The Philadelphia Energy Solutions plant had been struggling financially for years, and had failed to make necessary infrastructure improvements that would’ve kept it in line with environmental regulations. As it turned crude oil into everything from jet fuel to plastics, the plant spewed toxic chemicals into the air in South Philly (even when it wasn’t on fire), and it was found to be in violation of the Clean Air Act nine of the last 12 quarters.
“During normal operations, the refinery put out pollutants just from the act of refining,” Peter DeCarlo, a professor who specializes in air quality issues at Drexel University, told VICE News after the explosion. “It’s the largest source of pollution from any stationary source in the city.”
Benzene, which causes leukemia, and toluene, which can cause nervous system damage, were two of the major carcinogenic pollutants coming out of the plant during normal operations, according to DeCarlo.
In its financial struggles for the last few years, the plant has dipped in and out of bankruptcy. They’ve been fined numerous times by regulatory agencies, but it’s not clear that Philadelphia Energy Solutions had the cash on hand to pay those fines. In May, the company stopped making payments to the union workers at the site’s retirement fund, opting instead to pay them in a lump sum next year.
Philly’s Democratic mayor, Jim Kenney, said he expected the plant closure to affect 1,000 jobs, according to the Associated Press.
The people who live near the plant say that the air has been making them sick for years.
“They send off pollution at 1:30 in the afternoon every day,” said Audrey Kayani, a South Philly resident in her early 60s, told VICE News last week after the refinery exploded. “Who’s going to breathe it? We are.”
The plant was a major fuel source for the transportation sector in the Northeast, which is farther from the bulk of U.S. oil refining in the Gulf Coast. That’ll take a little logistical reordering, which could come at some cost to consumers at the gas pump, Associated Press reports. Gas prices spiked Tuesday on news of the impending closure, set for next month.
Climate activists in Philadelphia are now calling for the land on which the refinery operated to be turned over to the public and used for community-owned renewable energy. They also want Kenney, to veto the construction of a liquefied natural gas plant that was slated to be built near the old facility.
“We know fossil fuel companies other places have walked away from what they owe and we won’t stand for that here,” Sylvia Bennett, South Philadelphia resident and member of the community group Philly Thrive, said in a statement to VICE News.
Cover: Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia, Friday, June 21, 2019. Explosions and a blaze at the largest oil refinery on the East Coast shook homes before dawn Friday, though authorities reported only a few minor injuries and said the air was safe to breathe. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)