Community expresses concern on fate of Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery

Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon hosted a community-listening session this week to foster solutions surrounding the fire-damaged facility that recently announced plans for closure. 

Crowds from across the area gathered at Seafarers International Union this week to voice concerns about Philadelphia Energy Solutions. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

Crowds from across the area convened at Seafarers International Union, 2604 S. 4th St., this week to voice concerns about recent incidents related to Philadelphia Energy Solutions.

In response to the June 21 explosion, which has since sparked a breadth of unease around the region, U.S. Rep.  Mary Gay Scanlon hosted a community-listening session alongside state representatives and senators in an effort to foster solutions surrounding the fire-damaged facility that recently announced plans for closure. 

Community members, including employees from local labor unions and residents living near the South Philadelphia refinery, presented apprehensions about the region’s environmental and economic welfare in the shadow of the soon-to-close space. 

“It’s a complicated situation,” Scanlon said. “We have a refinery that’s been there…there’s been a hard industrial production on that site for 150 years, so there’s a lot of infrastructure. There’s a lot of contamination. There are a lot of issues with the site, but we also have a situation where we now have 1,100 workers whose jobs are at risk, and so that’s families that are affected.”

Five days after the mid-June early-morning fire on the Girard Point side of the refinery, PES announced it was shutting down its facility in July, causing more than 1,000 workers to be immediately impacted, according to statements released by the city. 

With their jobs at risk, refinery employees urged politicians at the meeting to find the means to keep the facility operating, stressing the economic devastation that will befall on Philadelphia and its surrounding counties if the more than 1,000 employees are left without work. 

In late June, PES employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the refinery, claiming the facility failed to give them ample amount of warning before the closure. 

PES employs different local unions, including Steelworkers Union Local 10-1, which represents 614 refinery workers. 

“That money will not be made up anywhere,” said Ryan T. O’Callaghan, president of Steelworkers Union Local 10-1. “We will be devastated. Our local economy will be devastated. Social services will be devastated…Do we need the refinery to run safer? Absolutely. And we will work towards that. But, the only transition we need is a new name on the front door.”

Union workers argue that not only will the region face the effects of increased unemployment, but, they say, absence of a fossil fuel refinery could affect other fuel oil products, such as gas prices and the cost of items made by coal or gas-powered machines. 

On the other hand, several meeting attendees perceive the PES closure as a positive move forward. 

Several individuals brought to light the refinery’s potential infliction of environmental and medical-related perils on the immediate region. 

Residents around the refinery, particularly those living in Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, say they attribute more-than-a-century’s worth of PES emissions to terminal and chronic respiratory, neurological and other illnesses contracted by individuals living in the area. 

“You tell me that jobs – fossil fuel – is more than life?” said Grays Ferry resident Sylvia Bennett. “You gotta be crazy…You can’t work when your family is dying. You want a job that’s killing people? How dare you say that it’s better than people’s lives.”

Residents from around South and Southwest Philly stressed the refinery’s potential contribution to global climate change. 

Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon addresses the crowd. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

According to a 2017 report issued by the city Office of Sustainability, the refinery is the “single-largest source of particulate emissions” in Philadelphia. The facility accounts for nearly 16 percent of Philadelphia’s carbon footprint, not including the fossil fuel products exported off-site, according to the report.

In 2016, Philadelphia ranked as the 12th-most polluted city in the U.S. by year-round particle pollution (PM2.5) and other particulate pollutants that have “negative effects on human health and the environment,” according to the report. For nearly all particulate pollutants, the report says the single-largest source of local air pollution is the PES refinery, which “accounts for more than 50 percent of local emissions for each of those pollutants.”

“Fossil fuel is not the answer,” said Philly Thrive activist Carol Hemingway. “There are other fuels that can be used. There’s job training that can happen for people. They don’t have to lose their jobs…Let’s talk about what it really is – it’s to find good fuel for everybody…We’re about ‘Let’s come together.’ ”

Several other individuals representing the environmental community echoed Hemingway’s thoughts, stressing the need for a solution that is both environmentally and economically beneficial.

“The environmental justice community is concerned about the workers,” added activist Peter Winslow. “We want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with you. What you’re hearing from folks over here is the emotional cry of relief. For the first time in their lives, they’re able to breathe fresh air, and that means an enormous amount to them. They don’t want to lose it. So, understand the fierceness with which they will retain their right to breathe…We have been calling for a just transition. We have wanted a soft landing that would take care of the workers, of the people, of everybody in the community, of the economy.”

Many suggestions were made to transform the refinery into a renewable energy facility, proposing to retrain PES employees in alternative energy sources, such as wind or solar power.

But workers from unions, such as Boilermakers Local 13 and Philadelphia’s Local 14 Insulators and Asbestos Workers, stressed what they see as an impracticality regarding renewable energy.

“It’s not realistic,” Dennis Kilderry, president of Local 14. ‘“We have to be realistic. I’m all about talking about the future of fossil fuels. But, what do you have? What if we sit and we talk and that’s great, but that’s 10 years away, 20 years away. Let’s start having the conversation. It doesn’t mean we have to close this place. We can still talk about possibilities…But until you have something in place, we need that place open.” 

According to Kilderry, 75 percent of Local 14 are between ages 45 and 56 – an age bracket that could be considered too old to physically start training for new types of jobs. Many of these employees, he says, could struggle to start a new type of vocation while trying to pay a mortgage or finance high school students’ college tuition.

In an effort to “put food on the table,” union workers say they’re seeking immediate solutions, and not “hypothetical retraining” for “hypothetical jobs.”

“They will not train us in these jobs for this, because they do not exist, because the technology does not exist,” said Joe Gazzara, a 30-year employee of the refinery and member of Steelworkers Union Local 10-1. “We are dependent on fossil fuels in this country…we must maintain what we have until something better comes along. If and when something better does come along, companies like ours – or what’s left of it – will do that. Because it’s real. We cannot do something that does not exist. It takes more than good intentions.”

Some meeting attendees say politicians should bear the blame on the country’s current lack of green job opportunities, stressing the United States should have more thoroughly funded these alternative energies decades ago. 

“The time to invest billions in technology and create jobs was 30 years ago, and hopefully, it’s not too late, because I’d like the planet to still be here when I reach retirement,” said a 26-year-old Chuck, a member of UA Local 420 Steamfitters. “But, for right now, people need a job tomorrow. People need a paycheck this week and next week.”

At the start of the meeting, the panel of politicians, which included U.S. Dwight Evans, state Rep. Maria Donatucci and at-large Councilperson Helen Gym, stated concerns to keep union workers’ jobs but did not directly respond to individual statements. 

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey announced that he received a commitment from PES saying it will pay workers impacted by its shutdown through Aug. 25. 

Representatives from Philadelphia Energy Solutions did not address concerns during this week’s meeting. 

The refinery could not be reached for comment following the event. 

“One thing I think I heard running through all of this is concerns about accountability, right? And making sure that your representatives are going to try and work and do the right thing,” Scanlon said. “But also, accountability to make sure that PES doesn’t walk away and that’s one thing, I think, we’re all committed to.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano