The PES Refinery Advisory Group, which was ordered to convene by Mayor Jim Kenney in the wake of the June 21 fire at the PES refinery in South Philadelphia, detailed plans for how the group will operate in the aftermath of the fire. According to the city’s managing director, Brian Abernathy, who is a member of the advisory group, the group will only “provide some advice to the city,” and will not be making any concrete policy decisions. Abernathy said that many who were appointed to the group don’t agree with each other on key issues on how to deal with the crisis, which was done on purpose.
The city “wanted a wide array of perspectives and opinions on the table,” Abernathy said. “The goal of this process is to gather information and perspectives and to listen to them. We all know that all of you have a story to tell, and we want to hear that story.”
Abernathy was the only member of the group to speak during the entire meeting. He spoke of the group’s makeup, which consisted primarily of people from organized labor, the business community and academic/environmental. There are 26 people in the group in total. Only two neighborhood representatives were among the 26 members: Jody Della Barba, president of Girard Estates Area Residents; and Irene Russell, president of Friends of Stinger Square. During the public comment section of the meeting, many lamented the lack of inclusion of more neighborhood members.
“It is unacceptable that residents from the many diverse neighborhoods throughout South, Southwest and West Philadelphia – directly impacted by PES – are not represented,” said resident Mark Clincy, who is a member of Philly Thrive, which he called an organization that “fights for the right to breathe clean air” and “has been focused on the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery, the largest polluter in the city many times over.”
The Clean AIr Council’s Community Outreach Coordinator, Matt Walker, echoed Clincy’s concerns.
“There must be more representation from neighborhood groups adjacent to the refinery site who’ve been impacted for years,” Walker said. “In addition, more environmental groups as well as public health experts should be invited into the group.”
Area residents, including Brian Ratcliffe, also chimed in on the community representation issue.
“I think that populating the board primarily with individuals with development experience, with emergency management experience and environmental experience will potentially bias or skew the conversation and centralize this project as being one of primarily economic development or remediation,” said Ratcliffe. “It is those things, but the environmental justice component, specifically the fact that…communities of color who have lived next to the plant for generation after generation and have been bearing the brunt of not only the air pollution, but the increased risk of explosions and things like that – the fact that that is not center in the perspective and priorities of people on the panel is an oversight.”
In response, Abernathy took the criticism in stride.
“I appreciate the comments on the makeup of this committee and the need and desire for additional community input and support on the advisory group itself,” he said. “We’re going to take that information back and we may make adjustments as we go forward. I very much appreciate those comments and the spirit in which those comments were given.”
Some prominent names on the advisory group include Abernathy; Philadelphia’s Director of the Office of Emergency Management/Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel; President and CEO of PECO Denis O’Brien; Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer; Associate Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at Drexel University Peter DeCarlo; Steamfitters Local 420 Business Manager Jim Snell; United Steelworkers Local 10-1 president Ryan O’Callaghan; and Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley.