Sylvia Bennett, 76, has been praying while walking the streets in the Grays Ferry neighborhood she has lived in most of her life.

Two of her daughters have cancer, a granddaughter has asthma, and though there is no definitive proof, she insists these illnesses, and those of her neighbors, were caused by living so close to the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.

There’s a difference in the odor here, she said. She would beg God for clean air so her family and friends could live. “You gave it to us, give it back to us,” she would pray. “Take this silent killer away.”

Sylvia Bennett, 75, lives close to the refinery on 32nd and Dickinson streets. Bennett is a part of an advocacy organization called Philly Thrive.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Sylvia Bennett, 75, lives close to the refinery on 32nd and Dickinson streets. Bennett is a part of an advocacy organization called Philly Thrive.

Her prayers were answered Thursday when a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge approved the sale of the complex to a firm that says it will transform the real estate into a mixed-use industrial site.

“This is a blessing,” said Bennett, who is a member of Philly Thrive, an advocacy group that has spoken out about refinery-related health concerns. "I could dance all over the street.”

The refinery has been shut down since a June fire triggered multiple explosions and released deadly chemicals into the air, including more than 3,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid, which can destroy deep tissue layers and bone, and can cause potentially deadly lung injuries.

Many residents had long feared a disaster triggered by the largest oil refinery on the East Coast sitting in their backyards. Some considered leaving the neighborhood but said they couldn’t afford to.

A month after the explosion, Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which owned the refinery complex, declared bankruptcy. This week’s sale to Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which plans to demolish the refinery, has brought residents hope.

Rodney Ray, 61, said he used to work in the refinery as a laborer, climbing into the oil tanks with a cloth mask to build scaffolding on the inside. At 55, he said, he had to go on disability because of congestive heart failure. He still lives near his former workplace, the place he believes is the reason he has trouble breathing today.

“The refinery sits right on top of us and has been sitting on top of us all my life,” said Ray, also a member of Philly Thrive. He was glad to hear of the refinery’s sale to Hilco because, he said, “I wouldn’t want this to happen to nobody else.”

The refinery was Philadelphia’s “single-largest source of local air pollution,” even before the explosion, according to a 2017 report from the city’s Office of Sustainability. Federal data also pegged the refinery, which processed 335,000 barrels of crude oil a day, as the city’s top emitter.

Newer resident Nancy Shapiro, 71, who has lived in the neighborhood about six years, said she had not been worried about pollution. Her corner home has a fenced-in yard with two apple trees, a peach tree, three walnut trees, and lilac bushes. “Everything grows,” she said.

She knew what she was risking when she moved in, she said, and is just glad the site will be used for something.

“I realize I live at ground zero,” she said. “When I moved in I said ‘OK, if the refinery don’t get me, the gas plant might.' ”

For longtime Grays Ferry residents, the fight against the refinery has spanned generations.

“It’s like I’m waking up from a nightmare,” said Jeanette Miller, 63, a Philly Thrive member who has lived in the neighborhood all her life and suffers from chronic bronchitis. “We’re finally being heard. … Now our kids are going to live without having to worry about diseases, without their lungs being polluted, the water being messed up.”

Rodney Ray here at home in his Grays Ferry neighborhood is one of those neighbors who has lived near the refinery all his life, worked in it for a few years and has health problems he says are related to this polluted air.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Rodney Ray here at home in his Grays Ferry neighborhood is one of those neighbors who has lived near the refinery all his life, worked in it for a few years and has health problems he says are related to this polluted air.

Charles Reeves, 61, said his father was advocating for the refinery to close in the 1970s.

But as a child, Reeves said, he didn’t understand. He used to play in the Schuylkill, where the refinery sits along, not knowing it could be hazardous.

Many of his children and grandchildren have eczema and asthma, and he had his prostate removed from cancer, which he thinks refinery-related pollution caused.

He is now a community leader, president of the Tasker-Morris Neighbors Association, and has been waiting for this change. While this makes him hopeful for future generations, he says it is too late for him and others like him who have already been sick.

“We’re grandparents,” he said. “The fight is over for us.”