Closing the largest refinery on the East Coast conjures up a tantalizing dream for environmentalists: Could it be converted into a renewable energy facility?

Maybe. That dormant dream was revived Wednesday after Mayor Jim Kenney confirmed that Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) plans to permanently close its South Philadelphia oil refinery complex after last week’s devastating explosions and resulting fire.

PES officials said they would “position the refinery complex for a sale and restart.” It was unclear if there are any potential buyers or what a buyer would do with the facility.

The PES complex, at 1,400 acres, is composed of two refineries, Girard Point and Point Breeze, as well as the North Yard rail and storage facility, all in South Philadelphia, and, the Schuylkill River Tank Farm across the river in Southwest Philadelphia. That’s miles of steel pipes, buildings, and infrastructure that might have to be razed. The ground and water underneath would all have to be cleaned to usable standards.

The refinery’s closure rekindled ideas many environmentalists have shared privately that the site could become a giant wind or solar facility, producing energy while offering jobs.

In reality, the site has been used so long to process fossil fuels that it will take years for any next steps to begin. It has been used for fossil fuel operations since shortly after the first oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pa., in 1859.

The Atlantic Refining Co. opened for business in 1870 at Point Breeze. The Gulf Oil Corp. opened the second site at Girard Point in 1926. Sunoco, then under different ownership, acquired both plants in 1988 and 1994.

That’s a lot of years of potential contamination. And Philadelphia officials have long identified the refinery as the city’s biggest source of toxic emissions and pollution.

Virginia Cain, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said officials at the department had no knowledge of potential uses for the site. But she said an assessment of the site and its environmental issues could take time, especially if there are requests for demolition.

“It would be really hard to say what’s going to be required from the DEP,” Cain said. “An operation of that size probably touches every one of our programs. They’d have to shut down tanks and get them removed. Any existing permits they have would have to be properly closed. Would they have to remove all the piping? We don’t know.”

What is known is that the facility has had environmental issues that stretch back years.

Christina Simeone, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, detailed in a paper published in September the site’s long history of “profound” contamination as a home to hydrocarbon processing for 150 years.

“The soil and groundwater at the site are heavily contaminated,” she wrote, noting refinery products like gasoline are in the groundwater and other areas. She said some contaminants have made their way offsite and could impact a drinking water aquifer used by New Jersey.

The South Philadelphia complex consists of the Point Breeze and Girard Point refineries, a tank farm on the west bank of the Schuylkill, and the North Yard rail and storage facility. (Aerial image from Google Earth)
JOHN DUCHNESKIE / Staff Artist
The South Philadelphia complex consists of the Point Breeze and Girard Point refineries, a tank farm on the west bank of the Schuylkill, and the North Yard rail and storage facility. (Aerial image from Google Earth)

In 2011, the EPA oversaw a large-scale, multi-year cleanup of the site when it was still owned by Sunoco, although the full status of that process is not clear. The cleanup, which was expected to be completed late last year, took “corrective action” at several locations at the site, including a lead tank bottom treatment area and a storm-water pond that drained the tank area and discharged into the Schuylkill.

The process also addressed hydrocarbon remediation, tackling an underground plume of contamination. Some of the contaminants of concern include petroleum hydrocarbons on land, and concentrations of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) in the groundwater.

In addition, the refining system involved an alkylation unit that converts crude oil into fuels and other products. The unit uses hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst, one of the most toxic materials handled in the refinery. In its gaseous state — hydrogen fluoride — it can drift beyond the refinery fence line and imperil the public. Officials said there was no release of HF during last week’s fire.

Figuring out liability for any future cleanup or remediation could be complex because of the refinery’s tangled financial history. Although the facility has been owned by PES since 2012, Sunoco assumed liability for contamination prior to that.

Alex Bomstein, a senior litigation attorney for the nonprofit Clean Air Council, said he was unclear what legal liabilities PES will assume for its years of operation, suggesting time-consuming legal work could be involved.

“Use of this site goes back to the Civil War era,” Bomstein said. “And there are going to be a lot of issues."

Bomstein cautioned that shuttering refinery operations doesn’t preclude a future fossil fuel use for the site. The PES site has extensive infrastructure that would be valuable to other energy-related enterprises.

He cited the Marcus Hook complex, about 15 miles south on I-95. The complex once had a refinery, but it was closed in 2011. It was repurposed by Sunoco to store natural gas liquids like propane, produced in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, which are carried across the state in two Mariner East pipelines.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, said nonprofit environmental groups have long wanted PES closed. But he said he understands that the loss of jobs will be painful and hopes another productive use can be found — such as conversion to a renewable energy facility.

“Certainly, this is the right step,” Masur said. “We understand there are hard decisions to make. But you need to rip off the Band-aid and start the transition process.”

Masur conceded he is not an expert in what it would take to convert the plant or its potential uses. But he said some in the environmental community have wondered whether it’s possible to turn it into a solar farm that would provide good jobs.

"You can still tap into [the facility] to create jobs using 21st century energy production instead of using 19th century energy production,” Masur said.

Philly Thrive, a local group that’s long connected the refinery to health issues in the surrounding communities, called news of a closure “a victory.”

But it issued a statement demanding that the land be restored and that City Council “fund studies into development of community-owned renewable energy on the land, and for city government to commit to a moratorium on new fossil fuel development, starting with the Mayor vetoing the LNG plant which is planned to be built across from PES.”