Terrence Ford was working the night shift at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery early on June 21 when an alarm sounded about a leak in a unit not far from his work site. The door on his fireproof blockhouse shook from an explosion. When he took a peek outside, the South Philadelphia sky was filled with flames.
“When you actually see a fire, you say a prayer and hope that everybody in the unit is safe,” said Ford, 42, who works as a lead operator at the Schuylkill River Tank Farm, where various components of gasoline are blended. He went back to his console. Years of training kicked in as he followed a strict set of procedures to shut off flows of product into and out of the affected unit. It took about four minutes.
“It’s been drilled into you, so it’s just reflex," said Ford, a 13-year refinery veteran.
Ford and two other refinery workers spoke Tuesday at United Steelworkers Local 10-1 union hall in Norwood about how their training prepared them to safely shutdown the plant in an emergency, but did not prepare them for the stunning news that landed five days later with the plant’s sudden closure, at the cost of more than 1,000 jobs. They say the refinery can still run and hope that a savior will rescue the plant.
As Ford closed valves at the gasoline blending unit, operators at dozens of process units — each functions as a separate factory — went through a similar protocol, methodically shutting down. One operator in the central control room pushed a button that rapidly emptied hydrofluoric acid from the alkylation unit affected by the fire, averting a potentially deadly release of gas.
When the smoke cleared that Friday, the refinery employees counted their blessings: Only five workers were slightly injured and all were treated on site. The damage appeared to be contained to the alkylation unit on the Girard Point side of the refinery. They figured the refinery would continue to operate until the unit was repaired.
The real shock came on June 26, when the owner of PES announced that the largest refinery on East Coast would shut down immediately, and the 335,000-barrel-a-day plant would be put up for sale. The announcement, which workers heard first through frantic messages from family members who were listening to the news, landed like a body blow.
A week later, workers — some of whom have sued the refinery owner over the sudden closure without a 60-day warning — are still in disbelief.
“The refinery can still run,” said Shaina Marsden, 30, an operator in the cumene and benzene unit, who spoke on Tuesday at the union hall in Norwood. The union represents more than 600 of the refinery’s 1,000 employees.
“Ninety-five percent of the refinery can still run, as it has before, when we do turnarounds with different units shut down,” said Mike Gioquindo, 55, an operator in the blending and shipping unit. “We’re able to run at a high level and make money.”
The refinery’s controlling shareholders, two Wall Street banks that assumed ownership after PES went through bankruptcy last year, apparently ran out of patience and saw an opportunity to cut their losses, cutting the $100 million annual payroll. The company said it was exempt from laws requiring a 60-day notice to workers. More than 100 salaried employees were laid off immediately. The last day for union workers will be July 12. There is no severance.
“Maybe they were just waiting for the right moment to get out,” said Gioquindo.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t still be running,” said Ford.
Workers at Sunoco’s Marcus Hook and Eagle Point refineries, which were closed in the last decade, had many months of advance notice. “It still sucked when you lost your job, but you can prepare a little bit,” said Gioquindo. “They were given job training. We’re getting nothing. Just close it and say goodbye, thanks for shutting it down.”
Ford’s two daughters are still in school and so are two of Gioquindo’s three children. Gioquindo’s family faces ongoing medical issues, but health insurance is set to run out at the end of July. “I have no idea how I’m going to pay for doctor’s visits, prescriptions,” he said.
All three are Philadelphia natives and still live in the city — Ford in Wynnefield, Marsden in Grays Ferry, and Gioquindo in Roxborough. Some potential employers have already come to the refinery to interview employees, but they run out-of-state plants — Arkansas, Louisiana, even Saudi Arabia.
“I’ve lived in Philadelphia all my life," Gioquindo said. "I don’t want to leave Philadelphia.”
Public officials have promised support. U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, whose district includes the South Philadelphia refinery, on Tuesday orchestrated a “day of action” in response to the refinery closure. She met with USW Local 10-1 president Ryan O’Callaghan and union members at the union hall, joined by Richard Lazer, deputy mayor of labor.
Philip Rinaldi, the refinery’s former CEO, held a closed-door meeting on Tuesday with labor, business, and political leaders to plot a strategy to save the plant, a meeting initiated by former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city’s Democratic party chief. Brady was instrumental in organizing the plant’s 2012 rescue by the Carlyle Group to stave off a threatened closure.
“It still has a very bright, long industrial future, if you do it right,” Rinaldi, 73, said in an interview Tuesday.
Rinaldi, who has spent his life working in the refining industry, echoed the sentiments of the Steelworkers, saying the refinery’s damage was limited to a “non-core process unit" and still could produce a number of products. The alkylation unit that was destroyed is one of two at the refinery complex that produce a high-octane blending component.
Rinaldi, who retains about a 4 percent ownership share in the refinery after the bankruptcy, said he also maintains a strong emotional connection to the plant, and was frustrated that he was unable to complete a revival before it went into bankruptcy last year.
“I consider PES is a child of mine," he said. "I don’t want to see it beaten and bleeding in the ground. I think it still has a future.”
The refinery workers at the union hall said they had faith in Rinaldi.
“I hope he can do it again,” said Gioquindo. “We work hard, sometimes seven days a week, through holidays. Refining is cyclical. You’ve got your down times and you’ve got your good times. It always turns around.”