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What should happen to the South Philly refinery site? Community voices weigh in. | Opinion

The Inquirer tapped three local stakeholders for their thoughts on what should happen to the PES refinery site, post explosion and bankruptcy.

Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia, Friday, June 21, 2019.
Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia, Friday, June 21, 2019.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Nearly seven months after an explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery launched a massive fireball from South Philly, a bankruptcy court will decide the site’s fate. PES quickly shuttered the refinery and declared bankruptcy after the June debacle. Bidders looking to buy the site — which occupies 1,300 acres — submitted proposals by Nov. 22 and have to give final offers by Jan. 10, culminating in a Jan. 17 bid auction if the process remains competitive.

The Inquirer tapped three local stakeholders for their thoughts on what should happen to the site: a former refinery employee and longtime Grays Ferry resident, a leader from a union that represents workers who lost their jobs after the explosion, and an urban-design leader working with the Clean Air Council to reimagine the area.

Keep the refinery closed — the environmental risks aren’t worth it

I’ve been a union man since I was 18, ever since my dad took me down to the union hall. For four years I worked at the refinery. I worked “seven twelves” — 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. My job was to climb into the tanks, set up scaffolding, and chip the dry oil off the tanks. The job was hard and dirty — the pay was good.

My grandfather is the only other person I knew from the neighborhood who worked at the refinery, and I’ve lived in Grays Ferry all my life. I remember at least three explosions over the years. One blew out the glass on my front door and put shrapnel in my back. Every time something leaked over there, the company would say it was “steam.” They tried to keep the community in the dark.

I had to retire early at 55 because I got sick with congestive heart failure —after a lifetime of running and playing sports. Now I can’t walk down the block without having to stop and catch my breath. My grandfather passed away from lung cancer. My grandmom, who lived three blocks from the refinery, passed away from cancer. My neighbor Ms. Sylvia has two daughters with cancer and she talks about the “silent killer” creating an epidemic in our community.

That is why the refinery needs to stay shut down. It had 150 years. We had to breathe this bad air for so long while the owners turned a profit — but nothing lasting for the community. It’s time for a change. I think our city leaders know that too.

It will take courage for Mayor Kenney to say no to the industry that ruled the site for over 100 years — and set out to rebuild our energy system.

Rodney Ray

Earlier this month after continued protest, my community organization Philly Thrive got to meet with Mayor Kenney about the refinery. We talked about “Right to Breathe” legislation that would protect our health and safety from polluters. We even discussed a ban on new fossil fuel projects.

What we called the mayor to do above all was to use the city’s power during the refinery’s auction over this next month. Residents don’t have a seat at the table, but the city does. Mayor Kenney has the opportunity of his career to stand up for the health of residents, workers, and our environment by preventing the refinery from reopening.

I want to see the day where we have both clean air and good jobs in our community. When I heard the refinery was closing, I knew those workers would fight for their jobs, and I don’t blame them. But we can do much better than 1,000 jobs on all that land. It’s time our unions secure more positions in renewable energy, like solar panels and wind turbines that could be built right here in South Philly. The world is changing and our young people have so much potential.

It will take courage for Mayor Kenney to say no to the industry that ruled the site for over 100 years — and set out to rebuild our energy system. It will take courage from all of us.

Rodney Ray is a member of Local Union 57 and 332 and a member of Philly Thrive, a grassroots organization building power for the Right to Breathe.

Protect jobs and accept it’s too soon to ditch fossil fuels completely

The PES Refinery has been creating fossil fuel-based products out of Philadelphia for over 150 years. Future opportunities at PES should include all realistic options that can generate good-paying, high-skilled jobs, and further economic activity.

The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters (Formerly Keystone + Mountain + Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters) represents over 42,000 union carpenters across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. Hundreds of our members previously worked at PES before the explosion.

Few can dispute that fossil fuels contribute to global warming, and many in the scientific community warn we are nearing a crisis point. While we confront the specter of global warming, we must also confront that there are currently few affordable green options available, on a large scale, to working families and small to midsize businesses.

Our current reality dictates that future options for the PES site must include a fossil fuel processing component out of sheer necessity. Families in the region need those affordable options to heat their homes and fuel their vehicles. Businesses need that fuel to operate on a cost-efficient basis allowing them to create jobs and pay employees fair and decent wages, with medical coverage and other benefits.

While we have to reduce fossil fuel-based emissions to confront the climate crisis, we also have an immediate need for economic survival.

William C. Sproule

So our city finds itself at a crossroads: While we have to reduce fossil fuel-based emissions to confront the climate crisis, we also have an immediate need for economic survival that can’t wait until we transition more fully to greener fuel alternatives.

Whether dealing with bio-fuel or solar energy, nuclear or fossil fuels, our union members are a highly skilled workforce, trained to handle energy plant construction, maintenance, and the upgrades needed to meet today’s rigorous safety and security standards.

Part of the mandatory job training for our workforce focuses on highly technical skills that incorporate the most up-to-date techniques and technologies necessary to support fossil fuel plants, while also focusing on skills to build and maintain green energy infrastructures. These jobs are necessary not only for the livelihoods of our members, but also to ensure continued energy production that fulfills the region’s needs for years to come.

The future PES site should encompass an amalgamation of old and new energy technology companies. The ideal end result would serve as a national model to continue fulfilling a hopefully diminishing market demand for fossil fuel-based energy products, while also moving quickly to provide cleaner alternatives.

Time is of the essence. We need substantial private-sector innovation and investment. And we need it coupled with a big national energy initiative on the scale of the Marshall Plan, which galvanized us after World War II to rebuild Europe in our own interest — focused this time on our domestic energy transformation. We have to confront energy independence, the climate challenge, and the employment opportunities they bring with a similar commitment.

William C. Sproule is executive secretary-treasurer of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters.

Imagine a greener future at a mixed-used site

Cities are a layering of uses etched into the landscape over time. One need only stand at the verdant shoreline of Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia to gauge what the Lower Schuylkill once was. Here, the river’s edge marks the rise of the Piedmont Plateau as the geology of the Atlantic Coastal Plain ends abruptly along the tidal Schuylkill’s western bank.

The view across the river from Bartram’s Garden reflects a different era. From here, Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ bankrupt oil refinery sprawls over 1,400 acres of former marshland as a piquant reminder of Philadelphia’s once-robust oil industry that dominated this landscape for over 150 years.

With the fire at the refinery and its subsequent closure, battle lines have been drawn between community members decrying decades of air and water pollution, and labor unions and others advocating for the solid middle-class jobs the plant offered.

While the immediate future rests in the hands of bankruptcy court, it gives us the chance to envision how this part of the city might evolve.

Mayor Kenney’s recent task force on the site’s future acknowledges that it will likely remain an oil refinery in the near term as we address pressing issues around the bankruptcy, lost jobs, and environmental remediation. Yet it is incumbent upon us to think about how we can equitably reposition the site and our workforce for good-paying jobs in clean industries.

Imagine that the area were environmentally remediated to allow for resilient new neighborhoods, parks and recreation spaces that complement the economic activity, [and] transit lines.

Harris Steinberg

Crucially, the privately owned, massive PES site (Center City is smaller at 1,200 acres) is located between the city’s four largest economic hubs of Center City, University City, the Airport, and the Navy Yard. Having these economic development assets in close proximity is one of Philadelphia’s great strengths. But PES’s size and single use inhibit our ability to leverage that connectivity.

Imagine if the area were instead designed as a home to thriving 21st-century industries built upon the nearly $1.5 billion in research and development funding that flows yearly into the economic juggernaut of University City. Imagine, too, that the area were environmentally remediated to allow for resilient and sustainable new neighborhoods, parks, and recreation spaces that complement and support the economic activity. Imagine transit lines linking this area with the surrounding region.

And then imagine that we committed to educating and training Philadelphians from all walks of life for the plethora of jobs the area can support.

We need look no further than the transformation of the Navy Yard from military base to jobs hub as proof of concept.

We now need a vision for the Lower Schuylkill that looks beyond current land-use patterns to the next 25, 50, and 100 years — harnessing our shared creativity to seize upon an enormous opportunity to position our city for continued success.

Harris M. Steinberg, FAIA, is the executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. The Lindy Institute is working with the Clean Air Council of Philadelphia under a William Penn Foundation grant to reimagine the future of the Lower Schuylkill. For more information:

» READ MORE: Philly Council sends a message: ‘Sustainable’ bidders welcome for bankrupt oil refinery

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