As demolition of the former oil refinery in South Philadelphia was happening in 2021, the toxic chemical benzene was emitted at a level double the federal threshold, according to a new report.
The emissions coming off the site could have posed a threat to human health, based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” for benzene, which can cause cancer and other health problems.
But because the refinery is not operating, the site is no longer subject to federal enforcement of that threshold. That means the EPA can’t order the site’s owner to decrease the emissions, which are likely occurring during the cleanup and demolition of the refinery.
Overall, the amount of benzene measured around the property in 2021 represents a continuing drop in emissions of the toxic chemical since the refinery closed in 2019, according to the new analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project — and it’s likely that the levels will drop much lower once the demolition of the site is complete. They had already begun dropping by the end of 2021, according to EPA data.
The owner, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, has been removing benzene-containing petroleum products from the site as part of the process for demolishing the refinery. The overall demolition is ongoing, but HRP expects to be done with the legacy petroleum products’ removal within the next month.
The company has taken out 18.5 million gallons of petroleum product and has 630,000 gallons left, said Julianna Connolly, executive vice president of environmental remediation.
Knowing whether benzene is still being emitted from the refinery site is of key importance to nearby residents. The benzene-containing materials on the site have to be removed in order to clean up and redevelop the property, but advocates said there should be procedures in place to ensure it happens as safely as possible.
“Apparently, the cleanup is bleeding benzene into the air, so people downwind are continuing to get exposed,” said Eric Schaeffer, Environmental Integrity Project’s executive director. “The solution would be taking a hard look at those cleanup actions and making sure everything possible is done to minimize exposures.”
The peak average concentrations around the refinery were still the second-highest in the country last year, the EIP found in the analysis, based on data reported to the EPA. The annual average net benzene concentration around the property’s fenceline was 18.5 micrograms per cubic meter, EIP found, exceeding the EPA’s “action level” of 9 micrograms.
A long cleanup is ongoing at the sprawling, deeply contaminated site, where refining occurred for 150 years before it shut down after an explosion in June 2019. Residents in surrounding South Philadelphia neighborhoods have long suspected that air pollution from the operating refinery caused cancer, asthma and other illnesses in their communities, which are majority people of color and largely low-income.
The refinery site will be redeveloped by HRP into a life sciences and logistics campus. The facility, formerly the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, hasn’t operated as a refinery since HRP purchased it.
The EPA confirmed that the site’s benzene annual average was about 18 micrograms per cubic meter at the end of 2021, though the level was at or below 9 in four of the seven biweekly averages in the last quarter of the year, said spokesperson Roy Seneca.
HRP had not reviewed the EIP report, said Connolly, but has measured benzene concentrations at the perimeter of the property “consistent with typical benzene concentrations measured in urban areas.” Asked whether the company had safeguards in place for the removal, Connolly said the benzene concentrations are monitored.
The removal of benzene-containing petroleum products that is set to be completed soon accounts for former refinery portion of the facility. The property also includes a still-standing oil tank farm, which Connolly said has “minimal residual material left in 5 tank bottoms.”
Overall, HRP is about 65% done with the on-site demolition, Connolly said. The redevelopment project is anticipated to take 15 years.
Benzene emissions occur near refineries nationwide, threatening the health of the more than 6 million Americans who live within three miles of a petroleum refinery. Those living near a fenceline and affected by toxic emissions are disproportionately low-income and minority populations, according to federal data.
In 2021, 11 other refineries measured annual average benzene levels that put them above the EPA’s action level, according to the EIP report. .
The EPA’s action level, which requires refineries to monitor emissions around their fencelines and take action if they exceed the threshold, was estimated to result in a 15% to 20% reduction in cancer associated with refineries — or more than 1.4 million fewer people being exposed to cancer risks.
But that level has not been enforced in Philadelphia since 2019 because the refinery no longer operates. (HRP is also no longer legally required to do perimeter benzene monitoring but has continued to do so, publishing the data on its website.)
In 2019, the refinery’s annual benzene emission levels were 50.4 micrograms per cubic meter, and the refinery did complete the required EPA analysis and “identified measures to reduce fugitive emissions of benzene,” according to the EPA. In 2020, the annual level was 28.2 micrograms per cubic meter.
In 2021, the EPA was aware of demolition on the site that included removing materials that may have contained benzene, Seneca said, but he noted the benzene levels measured at the property’s perimeter “do not reflect levels in the community.” He said the EPA continued to review data on emissions in the area.
Sunoco, a previous owner of the refinery, is responsible for remediating contamination that existed at the site prior to its sale in 2012. Evergreen, a subsidiary of Sunoco that is overseeing that cleanup, remediated subsurface oil and groundwater in 2021, but did not conduct any cleanup activities that released benzene, said spokesperson Lisa Coleman.
Residents of the surrounding neighborhoods say they remain concerned that emissions from the site could threaten their health. The coalition organized more than two dozen community groups into the United South/Southwest Coalition for Healthy Communities.
“How would you even ask us to trust that there’s nothing to worry about after experiencing 150 years of pollution while the city just stood by?” Betty Beaufort, a member of the Friends of Queen Memorial Library, which is part of the coalition, said via email.
The coalition has asked HRP for public involvement in the redevelopment, including a commitment to carbon-free development, immediate public involvement in the redevelopment, and a community benefits agreement with the surrounding neighborhoods, which “could include terms to protect residents from benzene and other emissions,” said Earl Wilson, of coalition member organization Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition.
The coalition has asked HRP to meet with the public on June 4 outside the refinery, demanding an in-person meeting about the redevelopment.