For South Philly residents, new report on refinery explosion prompts more health worries
The report was the first time authorities confirmed hydrofluoric acid had been discharged, bringing fresh worries for residents who said they have been struggling with increased coughing or asthma.
The thick black smoke over her South Philadelphia neighborhood was enough to make Carol White feel as if she couldn’t breathe.
She never had asthma or respiratory issues, but the June 21 explosion at the refinery near her home sent her to the emergency room. White, 60, said she still has chest pains, headaches and eye irritation, and carries an inhaler.
“I am hoping that I can get out of here,” she said.
In the months since the explosion at Philadelphia Energy Solutions, some residents said they have been struggling with coughing or asthma, or noticed neighbors with health complications. A report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released Wednesday was further confirmation, some said, that officials are not prioritizing the health of the community, and left residents complaining that officials hadn’t talked with them about their health and should have warned them sooner about toxic chemicals.
The report was the first time authorities confirmed that hydrofluoric acid had been discharged, and while almost 2,000 pounds of it was contained by water spray, more than 3,000 pounds was released to the atmosphere.
White said she had been reassured by previous statements that no hydrofluoric acid, one of the most toxic materials handled in the refinery, had been detected. When this acid touches the skin, the report states, it can destroy deep tissue layers and bone, and if as little as 2.5% of body surface area is exposed, it can cause death. No one died in the June accident.
“I wish they would’ve talked to us and said, ‘You matter, and we are looking into this,’” said Carol Hemingway, 70, who lives near the refinery and is a member of Philly Thrive, a group that speaks out about refinery-related health concerns.
» READ MORE: Refinery explosion: How Philly dodged a catastrophe
City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said officials have been clear in their communication with residents, listened to their concerns, and created an advisory group.
“I’m a little disappointed that folks feel like we lied to them. ... We have been very forthright throughout this process that there were chemicals released in the air,” Abernathy said.
After the June explosion, residents were told to shelter in place. The 1,300-acre complex was the largest oil refinery on the East Coast and in their backyard. Advocacy groups and neighbors had complained over the years about the environmental impact.
The pollution scares Sonya Sanders, 47, a member of Philly Thrive who lives near the refinery. Her eyesight worsened after the explosion, though she’s not sure whether it’s related to the refinery.
Exposure from the blast could cause eye irritation, chemical conjunctivitis, said Marilyn Howarth, a physician with the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Sanders’ family has come up with something they call their “drill.” If they smell gas, they go into their back room and start stuffing blankets under doors. Their windows have plastic taped over them.
“I cannot afford to up and run because I am poor,” Sanders said. “I have no say whether I can be healthy or not, whether I can breathe in fresh air, whether I live or die.”
Adam Thiel, the city’s fire commissioner, said he was not aware of an increase in medical emergency activity after the explosion. He said toxic materials are released in any fire.
“So what folks in the community might have been exposed to would have been the toxic products of combustion that are released during any structural fire,” he said.
Not everyone has concerns. Some residents said their families had lived in the neighborhood for generations without health problems.
Chuck Orlando, 76, brushed off the explosion and Wednesday’s report, saying, “We’re used to it.” He had been living in his house for 56 years and said it has been in the family for more than a century.
“People make too much of a big deal out of minor things,” Orlando said.
Branden Butkus was sweeping the kitchen that his girlfriend and newborn son would soon be coming home to and wondered what the air would mean for his baby’s health.
“God forbid anything happens, and now having a baby, it’s just like you second-guess living here,” said Butkus, 26.
He thought the family could stay for several years, but moving in the week of the explosion and Wednesday’s findings have made him nervous.
“Now you think to yourself,” he said, “‘All right, I’m trying to get in and get out of here.’ ”