Residents and environmental groups said this week that they are alarmed by two permit applications they say would allow HRP, owner of the defunct South Philly refinery, to continue some refining operations for five years without what they consider to be adequate pollution controls.
Hilco Redevelopment Partners, known as HRP, is in the process of demolishing the old refinery infrastructure to create what it calls the Bellwether District, a new name for a commercial real estate venture of e-commerce, logistics, and life sciences businesses it hopes to build. It is estimated that 19,000 jobs would be created over the next 15 years.
The Chicago company acquired the 1,300-acre Philadelphia Energy Solutions property out of bankruptcy and has to clean up the site where petroleum was refined for more than 150 years, but certain permits once held by the refinery are expiring.
HRP and the city say the renewal and changes to some permits are necessary to allow for continued demolition and cleanup at the site where an explosion and fire forced its permanent closure in 2019.
Activists and others are concerned because the permit application to the city’s Air Management Services would allow some refining operations to continue for five years without adequate air monitoring at the fence line for benzene.
“We picked up two really big things in the permits,” said Russell Zerbo, an advocate with the Clean Air Council. “They are very straightforward that they are continuing to operate the tank farm ... there’s plain language saying they are going to sell the remaining fossil fuels and treat the remaining wastewater. But they don’t say how long that will take, which is a big point of concern.
Zerbo said the permits don’t require monitoring for benzene at the 1,300-acre site’s fence line. Benzene is a byproduct of fossil fuel operations.
“So we want the facility treated like an active refinery,” Zerbo said.
The company is applying for what’s known as Title V permits under the Clean Air Act and normally issued to only large sources of air emissions.
Though the refinery has been closed for years, a host of hazardous chemicals including cancer-causing benzene lurk beneath the land where crude oil was processed, stored, and shipped. Benzene, a natural component of crude oil and other petroleum products such as gasoline, is linked with cancer and other diseases. Extended exposure to high levels is connected with immune-system and bone-marrow damage, bleeding problems, and a decrease in red blood cells.
Residents fear that demolition and construction could unleash vapors or further contaminate groundwater.
The city’s Air Pollution Control Board held a virtual public hearing Wednesday night on permits related to the former refinery and its still-existing tank farm. There was no date set for a decision.
“I am speaking to you tonight to show my concerns about what is happening at the ... refinery site, " Earl Wilson, president of Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, said during the meeting. “I’m finding out now that Hilco and the city is beginning to move away from some of their environmental advances.”
HRP issued a statement to The Inquirer on Thursday, saying that though the refinery is closed, existing permits need to be extended because refining infrastructure that fell under those permits remains on the property. HRP asked the city to modify the permits to reflect the decommissioning and demolition process, expected to continue through 2024.
“During this time, physical components of the refinery remain; however, the former refinery is currently and will continue to be in a non-operational state,” the statement said. “As decommissioning and demolition continue, HRP continues to comply with permit and monitoring requirements associated with the former refinery, and as those requirements are no longer warranted, HRP seeks modifications to them.”
The company says that some sources of air emissions have already been eliminated as part of the process, meaning, it says, that monitoring is no longer required. “So HRP is asking for the permit to be modified accordingly.”
The statement said the company will still continue some monitoring. “HRP remains committed to the health, safety, and well-being of the community and encourages continued feedback and engagement from our neighbors in South Philadelphia.”