Facing the loss of a thousand refinery jobs by the end of the week, labor and political leaders on Monday called for the safe, secure closure of bankrupt Philadelphia Energy Solutions and its quick sale to a new operator.
A panel of elected leaders, including U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, and Dwight Evans, a Democrat, called for the smooth transition of the largest refining complex on the East Coast after Sunday, when it is scheduled to lay off most of the 950 employees remaining on its workforce.
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The 335,000-barrel-a-day refinery shut down following a devastating June 21 explosion and fire, and declared bankruptcy in July. Its owners say they are actively seeking a buyer, but workers say the complicated equipment needs to be maintained to preserve its functionality.
“We want to make sure the refinery is brought down in a safe way," said Anthony Wigglesworth, executive director of the Philadelphia Area Labor-Management Committee, speaking to about 150 people, mostly union workers, at Steamfitters Local 420 in Northeast Philadelphia.
“We want to make sure the operability of the refinery is not compromised because we are actively seeking a new owner for that facility that will continue the tradition of industrial operation in the city of Philadelphia," Wigglesworth said.
The rally, billed as a news conference, aimed to mobilize union workers who will be most affected by the shutdown — members of the Steelworkers Union who are on the refinery’s payroll as well as hundreds of other tradespeople, such as steamfitters and electricians, who do specialized work on processing units.
The labor leaders say that the refinery’s management team has been uncommunicative. “They don’t say much, and it’s hard to get much out of them,” said James Snell, business manager of Steamfitters Local 420. “And that’s why we’re bringing this to light, this whole safety aspect, winding down in the right way.”
Ryan O’Callaghan, who represents about 600 members of Steelworkers Local 10-1 who work at the plant, says the union is still negotiating with management over whether workers will remain employed after Aug. 25 to work as caretakers of the plant until it is sold.
O’Callaghan said that about 80 employees were told last week that they were no longer needed, though they would be paid through Aug. 25 in order to comply with a legal 60-day layoff notice.
The refinery operations are virtually shut down, and the plant, under the supervision of state and federal regulators, last week began neutralizing 30,000 gallons of hydrofluoric acid used in the refining process that are still stored on the site. Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel on Friday said about half of the acid had been neutralized.
The city’s 26-member PES Refinery Advisory Group on Tuesday and Wednesday will hold two more public meetings, at the Preparatory Charter School in Point Breeze, to gather public suggestions for the refinery’s new life. The panel draws from labor, academia, business interests, and city government, as well as environmental and community groups.