In the last few weeks, we have seen uprisings all over the world calling to defend Black lives. Philadelphia is no different, as demonstrators throughout the city have called to defund the police and reinvest that money into Black communities. Systemic racism must be uprooted in all of its forms — including the disproportionate impact of environmental harm on communities of color.
That is why, for the one-year anniversary of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery explosion, we are calling on the City of Philadelphia and Hilco Redevelopment Partners to start reversing 150 years of racial, economic, and environmental injustice as they redevelop the refinery land.
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On June 21, 2019, the former PES refinery exploded after owners neglected needed maintenance. A pipe that corroded to be as thin as half a credit card exploded and released 5,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid — a chemical that can burn through bones. This explosion caused environmental harm and negatively impacted the South and Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding the site, disproportionately affecting Black Philadelphians who had long lived with health issues linked to pollution. Generations of Philly’s Black residents have suffered from high rates of asthma and been exposed to toxins associated with rare cancers. Similar trends are happening around the country, where studies show that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. We remember this day to honor the lives impacted and lost over the decades as a result of environmental racism.
Philly Thrive — led by Black residents of South Philadelphia — won a victory against systemic racism this year when the PES refinery was sold in bankruptcy court to Hilco Redevelopment Partners following our call for permanent refinery closure.
As new stewards of the refinery site, Hilco must actively combat the refinery’s racist legacy. But recently in Chicago, where Hilco is locally based, dust and air pollutants from a Hilco project caused outcry in surrounding neighborhoods of color. Philadelphians cannot be put in that situation and made to fight, yet again, for our right to breathe.
Join us as we demand that Black Lives Matter for the next 150 years of the refinery’s land. If done right, that will mean a multiyear collaboration between stakeholders during the rebirth of the property. There are two immediate steps redevelopers can take.
Black lives will start mattering at the site if Hilco and city officials make a clear commitment to building relationships with residents, particularly those in surrounding neighborhoods who have been most impacted by the legacy of pollution, before the new site is complete. It is time to reinvent community involvement to mean more than retroactive “feedback” that is no more than lip service. Residents are ready to be partners in designing community benefits, cleanup, and redevelopment plans as central stakeholders.
Black lives will start mattering at the site if companies operating on the land pay their fair share in taxes from the beginning. Philadelphia Energy Solutions was estimated to be on track to receive $6.2 million in tax breaks before the explosion shuttered the facility. Racial justice means structuring robust revenue for Philadelphia’s public services. With City Council’s recent slashes to budget for parks, libraries, and health, our leaders should be embracing fair taxation of the largest corporations in our city. It is disgraceful that District 2 Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson has already introduced a bill that would extend tax breaks from PES to Hilco. City Council and Hilco itself should reject the terms of that bill.
When we fight for our right to breathe, we fight racism as a public health issue — like the right to clean air, to protections from COVID-19, to ending police violence. Our fight is another part of the larger battle against systemic racism.
As South Philly resident Kilynn Johnson writes in her poem “A Message to Hilco”: “It’s been 150 years / That our health has been in jeopardy ... No one seemed to worry / Nor did anyone seem to care / Of the issues that our community had to bear.”
It’s time for that to change.