Adam Tunnard / WESA
Local environmental organizations held a sidewalk press conference today in front of the U.S. Steel Tower downtown, calling on U.S. Steel to reduce emissions from its Clairton Coke Works plant. The event comes in response to Monday’s fire at the coke facility, the second in sixth months, which briefly knocked out pollution controls.
“Community members should not be expected to hold their breath,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director at the Group Against Smog and Pollution. She spoke in favor of modernization of the plant and improving existing infrastructure to reduce emissions.
Other speakers approached the issue differently. Melanie Meade, a lifelong Clairton resident, said that if the facility continues to have issues like Monday’s fire, it should simply be “shut down.” She also said that the fines U.S. Steel has received for pollution, like May’s $300,000 fine from the Allegheny Department of Health, are practically unnoticed by the corporation, like “pocket change.”
Geoff Bland of Clean Water Action said U.S. Steel’s planned $1 billion investment in the Mon Valley won’t adequately address emissions from the Clairton plant. He stated that these investments are “certainly not going to be affecting these [sulfur dioxide] emissions that we’ve been worried about.”
On Monday, the Allegheny County Health Department gave U.S. Steel 20 days to control its emissions at the plant or face a shutdown.
In an emailed statement, U.S. Steel stated that in addition to building a new cogeneration facility at the Clairton plant, they are “absolutely committed to making even more substantial investments in Clairton to make further environmental improvements.”
Ximena Conde / WHYY
Every Sunday afternoon in the summer, Stinger Square at 32nd and Dickinson streets hosts Oldies in the Park. A DJ sets up a booth next to benches and a children’s playground. Hip-hop, funk and R&B tunes get neighbors like Cephus White line-dancing and feeling carefree.
But not this Sunday. The fire that rocked the nearby Philadelphia Energy Solutions gasoline refinery just two days earlier kept many people indoors. For those who came out, the blaze ignited worry and frustration.
“We’re very concerned, but I guess we’ve just learned to live with it because we’ve been in the neighborhood so long and there’s nothing we can do about it,” White said. “Unless we want to walk around with oxygen masks, that’s the only other recourse.”
The massive fire at the former Sunoco refinery, the largest oil refinery on the East Coast, erupted around 4 a.m. on Friday and burned until Saturday afternoon. It shook nearby homes and darkened the sky with thick black smoke for hours.
Air quality tests done by the Philadelphia Health Department haven’t detected hazards in the air. PES spokeswoman Cherice Corley said Sunday that the company and a third party continue to monitor air quality within the facility hourly and that all readings are normal.
But residents of the Grays Ferry neighborhood said that, even before the fire, the refinery’s foul smells and smog made the air impossible to breathe on hot summer days.
These neighbors compare the stench to a rotting egg, or water left to pool for too long.
They say they’ve called attention to the refinery’s pollution and history of fires for decades.
Some say they want to see the 150-year-old refinery shutter while others say they just want operations made safer. But across the spectrum, residents said it feels like it will take a major catastrophe to get city officials to take serious action.
“We’re talking about…everybody dying at one time,’ for them to even consider any type of cease operations,” said Joseph Rose, a committeeman of Southwest Philadelphia’s 6th ward, 33rd division.
Irene Rusell is a lifelong resident of Grays Ferry and part of Philly Thrive, an advocacy group that’s worked as the main opposition to the refinery since 2015.
She said the average resident would settle for the city’s largest polluter to comply with the Clean Air Act, which it has never done.
“Shut them down until they come into compliance,” Russell said. “Until the people can, at least, rest assured that the air they’re breathing is healthy.”
Asthma attacks and worries for the future
A mile from the refinery, more than 50 children played in a community basketball tournament this weekend at the South Philly Smith Playground. The smells of a small charcoal grill wafted across the city park as kids rapped and danced on a small stage.
The scent of grilled meat was a welcome substitute to the stench residents say comes from PES. They can’t see the refinery — the Schuylkill Expressway acts as a barrier— but the smell is hard to miss, they say.
Herbert Campbell, who played with his four-year-old at the park Saturday, moved to the neighborhood about a year ago. When the walls of nearby homes began to shake Friday from the explosion, he realized the gravity of the mistake he made when deciding to settle in the neighborhood. At that time, he thought the sprawling refinery was a factory.
Though Campbell has severe asthma, he gave little thought to what moving into the neighborhood would mean for his health. That’s changed.
“I’ve had recurring attacks since moving in,” he said. Initially, he blamed expressway pollution.
He went to an urgent care center and spoke to a doctor on Sunday. The doctor suggested he move to improve his breathing troubles, though the doctor didn’t blame the refinery or expressway explicitly.
Campbell’s a single parent and hopes to save money for his daughter’s college fund — so the idea of moving is daunting. But he’s still considering his options.
“I’m thinking about it,” Campbell said after the doctor’s appointment.
Philly Thrive plans to meet at a park on 28th Street and Passyunk Avenue — just down the street from the refinery — on Tuesday to discuss air quality monitoring.
A chunk of Philadelphia’s trash is burned in Chester — which pollutes Chester’s air.
On this episode of WHYY’s “The Why,” reporter Catalina Jaramillo talks about why Philly’s trash ends up in Chester, and why such incinerators are often in communities of color.
People have filed thousands of complaints with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources about everything from gas leaks and crumbling roads to odors and noise they blame on energy development.
Following a massive fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex, an oil refinery in South Philadelphia, health and air quality experts say residents in the path of the fire’s plume should be aware of potential health impacts from smoke and particulate matter.
A series of explosions that produced a giant fireball at the refinery in the early morning hours Friday led to plumes of black smoke and noxious odors that spread across the region.
After receiving a request from the Clean Air Council, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation announced it is deploying a four-person team to investigate the explosion.
It has not yet been confirmed which chemicals burned in the fire, but preliminary statements have named propane and butane. According to Reuters, some sources cautioned an explosion occurred near hydrofluoric acid. The last of these is controversial for being one of the deadliest chemicals in the refining process.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions says the plant is running at a “reduced rate” and the cause of the fire is under investigation.
“We are thankful that no one was seriously injured during today’s event,” wrote PES spokeswoman Cherice Corley in an email. “Our immediate focus is to continue to safe the area and assess the balance of the facility. We will remain under Incident Command until further notice.”
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health said in a statement that preliminary air sampling at the refinery and adjacent sites has shown no ambient carbon monoxide, combustible hydrocarbons or hydrogen sulfide.
“Based on results of samples taken this morning, the Health Department has no findings that would suggest there is a threat to the public health as a result of today’s fire,” said James Garrow, a department spokesman.
The findings were based on two air samples taken from up- and down-wind of the refinery this morning.
Other local health experts are remaining more cautious.
Dahlkemper lives in Point Breeze, a neighborhood near the refinery, and is a mother of three. “My 8-year-old daughter has asthma, as do a high percentage of kids in our neighborhood,” she said.
In addition to children and infants, groups most affected by air pollution include elderly and pregnant individuals, as well as people who have existing respiratory or heart conditions, or are otherwise immunocompromised.
Marilyn Howarth, a doctor at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at The University of Pennsylvania, agreed the fire could worsen symptoms for people with asthma and heart disease.
“There may be short term impacts on people with those conditions,” she said.
These diseases are also caused by other factors, such as smoking. So it’s often difficult to link individual cases directly to the refinery.
Kilynn Johnson and Sonya Sanders live downwind of the refinery in Grays Ferry. They are members of Philly Thrive, a community organization opposed to the plant.
“We’ve all been living here since we were kids. OK, this has been going on since our mothers were children. This has to stop,” said Sanders.
The pair referred to a smaller fire that occurred at the plant 11 days ago.
“It was a mild fire, so they say. But what is it going to take?” said Johnson. “Let us live, let us breathe fresh air. We don’t need to be any sicker than we already are.”
Sanders said foul odors from the refinery are common, and she and her neighbors suspect the refinery has made them sick.
“We smell it like it’s in our house. I have to go get blankets, put it down by the door, make sure my windows are shut and everything. And we are scared to death,” she said.
As of early Friday evening, the fire was no longer spreading, but still burning. After traveling northeast on Friday morning, smoke plumes turned southeast, in the direction of Deptford and Gloucester Townships in New Jersey, said Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of engineering at Drexel University.
DeCarlo cautioned that the preliminary air monitoring is meant to ensure first responders aren’t in immediate danger. He said it shouldn’t be used to infer safety for community members.
“Emergency responders and firefighters are very, very healthy people,” he said. “People who are not healthy residents of the community — who might be elderly, or kids — are going to respond very differently to levels of pollution than those first responders.”
Over the next day, he said, everyone in the immediate vicinity or downwind of the refinery should try to limit their exposure to air pollutants and dust from the fire.
The best thing to do may be to leave the area until the fire is completely out and the smoke has dissipated, DeCarlo said. When the air is fresher, he said, people should open their windows and doors to flush their homes of air pollutants that have seeped in through cracks and crevices.
DeCarlo added that the wind, which was relatively strong Friday, will help clear the plume out pretty quickly once the fire is extinguished.
Those who can’t leave the area should stay indoors with the windows closed, said Blanca Himes, an assistant professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania.
If people start to feel symptoms such as shortness of breath, burning or itching sensations in their eyes or noses, fatigue, or headaches, they should seek medical care, Himes said.
“Some people are very sensitive to chemical smells, and they’ll know immediately that something is happening,” she said. She added, however, that not all pollutants have an odor.
‘Having my meal elsewhere’
Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest refinery on the East Coast processing 335,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The former Sunoco refinery had been revived by cheap Bakken crude oil shipped by rail from North Dakota but it has since suffered economic setbacks and emerged from bankruptcy last year. It’s also the largest single source of air pollution in Philadelphia and has never been in compliance with the Clean Air Act.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions said in a statement that there were three separate explosions at the refinery, which affected an alkylation unit.
The company has not confirmed which products were burning, but suggested it was “mostly propane.” Earlier on Friday, Philadelphia fire officials stated that a butane vat ignited.
“It’s a very caustic chemical, and it can cause a lot of damage,” DeCarlo said. “If you’re in a chemistry laboratory and you’re using hydrofluoric acid, you have to take extra precautions beyond what’s normal.”
If hydrofluoric acid is in the smoke plume, and “if it were me living in that area, I would certainly be having my meal elsewhere right now,” he added.
Chemical safety expert Fred Millar said the refinery uses highly toxic hydrofluoric acid to make gasoline and that there was a danger of the explosions rupturing the storage tank.
There is no indication that the chemical was released in Friday’s fire.
But Millar said an evacuation should have been called in South Philadelphia, noting that the toxic cloud from hydrofluoric acid can grow to as much as 10 miles in length. The chemical can cause serious health issues and even death.
“A hydrofluoride refinery is about the most dangerous facility anyone could have in the community,”said Millar. “The hydrofluoride tank can produce an enormously dangerously toxic gas cloud. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, unless it was blowing straight up to heaven, the city should have called a precautionary evacuation.”
Pollution from the refinery, which is the largest on the East Coast, poses a range of health risks to nearby residents, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases like asthma. The community surrounding the refinery is predominantly black and low-income.
DeCarlo also called attention to the long-term effects of exposure to air pollution from the site.
“This is a refinery that’s been around since 1860 and has a long legacy of environmental issues. So just because we’re seeing the acute impacts or the immediate impacts of this fire doesn’t mean we should forget about the long-term and chronic impacts to the environment, and to the local people living in that area and their health,” he said.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions released a statement apologizing to the community and says it is following protocol to protect the environment.
Mayor Jim Kenney has convened a working group to examine safety and air quality protocols at the South Philadelphia refinery.
Kenney said in a release sent Friday that the working group would explore longtime concerns from people who live near the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery at 3100 W. Passyunk Ave.
“I believe that there is room for improvement, both in the operation of the refinery in light of two fires in as many weeks, and in the communication to residents,” Kenney said.
Emily Pontecorvo, Jake Blumgart and Steph Yin contributed to this report.
Despite a New Jersey moratorium, quota system has failed to restore numbers of migratory shorebirds, advocates say.
This story has been updated.
A massive explosion rocked the oil refinery in South Philadelphia early Friday morning, city officials confirmed.
Fires raged throughout the morning at the 150-year-old industrial complex at 3100 W. Passyunk Ave. The refinery is located along the Schuylkill River, just south of Girard Estates and next to FDR Park.
The fire is contained, but not yet under control. The city’s Office of Emergency Management is working with the Fire Department, Philadelphia Gas Works, PECO and the Coast Guard to coordinate with refinery owner Philadelphia Energy Solutions on the response to the disaster.
PES said it recorded four minor injuries to workers, all of whom were treated on site by company medical staff.Fire fighters continue to battle flames at the PES refinery. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Nearby residents heard and felt explosions and saw flames shooting into the sky, turning night into day.
“It looked like the sun was coming up early,” said Damon Hudgens, 26, who works at an airport parking lot. “But you looked to your left it was just a big ball of fire. It just kept rising up and sprawling out.”
Residents did not hear an emergency siren — because it did not appear to go off, for reasons unknown. No evacuation orders were issued. There was a shelter-in-place order for residents east of the refinery, but it was lifted around 7 a.m.Philadelphia OEM
UPDATE: Philadelphia Fire Department announces that the shelter-in-place request in portions of South Philadelphia has been lifted. Please avoid area near Passyunk and 26th Street due to amount of fire apparatus and first responders. https://twitter.com/philaoem/status/1142020676674605057 …Philadelphia OEM
Map below of shelter-in-place request from @PhillyFireDept due to smoke from PES Refinery fire in South Philly:
26th Street West
22nd Street East
Updates to follow
We’ll be updating this story as more details come to light. Here’s what we know about the blast and its aftermath.What we know
- There were three separate explosions. which happened at approximately 4 a.m., PES said in a statement.
- The structure impacted is what’s known as an “alkylation unit.”
- Though Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy originally said it was a butane vat that exploded, PES later said it believed propane was the main fuel that caught fire.
- Refinery owner Philadelphia Energy Solutions has its own fire brigade, and when Fire Dept. responders arrived on scene around 4:45 a.m., they were already beginning work to isolate the fire.
- The blaze escalated to 3 alarms, and the Fire Dept. deployed 51 apparatus and 120 responders to the scene. The fire has subsided somewhat since then.
- Four minor injuries to PES workers on site are the only injuries reported so far.
- Homes as far away at South Jersey were shaken by the boom, according to NBC10.
- Multiple SEPTA bus routes have been diverted because of the fire.
- The Schuylkill Expressway was briefly shut down, but has reopened.
- The Passyunk Avenue Bridge and Penrose Avenue Bridge were also originally shut down; the former reopened at 6 a.m. and the latter at 7:10 a.m., PES said.
- The refining complex is still operating, but it’s running at a reduced rate, per PES.
Fire at PBS Philadelphia terminal6:11 AM – Jun 21, 2019 · Philadelphia, PA See Tom MacDonald–WHYY’s other Tweets Twitter Ads info and privacy
Potential oil refinery explosion and fire near Philly clearly showing up on radar this morning. About half way through the loop.
- At the scene from a fire staging area under the Platt Bridge, a flare can be seen burned off fuel (Emma Lee/WHYY)
- At the scene from a fire staging area under the Platt Bridge, a flare can be seen burned off fuel (Emma Lee/WHYY)
- At the scene from a fire staging area under the Platt Bridge, a flare can be seen burned off fuel (Emma Lee/WHYY)
- What caused the fire. It’s the second fire at the refinery in one month, following a June 10 fire in which no injuries were reported.
- When authorities will be able to bring the blaze under control. Officials said they are deploying systems that not only fight the fire from above but also from below.
- Why the emergency sirens, which are set up to alert the neighborhood of danger and are tested on a monthly basis, did not go off.
- What effect the smoke will have on the air quality in Philadelphia today, or how long the smog will linger. Preliminary testing on Friday morning showed no ambient carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (combustibles), or hydrogen sulfide, the Philly Health Department said.
Large fire at southwest Philly refinery complex.
Some who saw the blast say they’re worried about residual effects.
“We still imagine what it’s gonna be to our body system,” said Stanley Nwandiko, who works nearby at a valet service. “If it’s harmful that’s something of concern to me.”
Other longtime residents downplayed fears.
“I think it’s pretty scary, it being so close to home. But I don’t think any real damage can come of anything except for the refinery really,” said Vincent Gugliamo, 49, who lives about two miles east of the blast site.Reaction from officials
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has not yet issued a statement on the fire. Other elected officials have been weighing in on social media.Senator Pat Toomey
My office is monitoring the refinery fire in South Philly and is awaiting more information when it is available. Great work by local first responders.
This is at least the second fire at the refinery this month. Given all the bankruptcy and uncertainty, just shut this thing down already. https://twitter.com/todayshow/status/1142028175813357568 …TODAY
A massive fire burned in Philadelphia at the largest refinery on the East Coast. Roads are closed and residents were told to shelter in place, @RonAllenNBC reports.
The PES refinery is one of the oldest and largest on the East Coast, and turns up to 350,000 barrels of raw crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel, heating oil, diesel, and chemicals every day. Once owned by Sunoco, the refinery was once on the verge of closure until the shale boom unleashed record-breaking amounts of cheap, domestic oil and gas.
The refinery is also Philadelphia’s single-largest source of particulate pollution.
An Ohio law and environment professor said that in some ways, Pennsylvania is better than Ohio in terms of regulating the industry.
For the fourth time in 12 years, a member of Philadelphia City Council has introduced plastic-bag legislation.
This time, it might actually pass.
The bill introduced Thursday by Councilman Mark Squilla would ban lightweight plastic bags and non-recyclable paper bags, while also putting a 15-cent fee on recyclable paper bags and thicker plastic bags.
“We worked with a broad coalition of folks when we were drafting this legislation,” Squilla said, “and I believe this time we’ll have a really solid majority of support to pass the legislation.”
Plastic bags used to package loose vegetables or contain meat or fish would be exempt from regulation, as would plastic bags for unwrapped prepared foods and bakery items.
The hybrid model — a ban plus a tax — is the most comprehensive of the measures that have been proposed in City Council.
David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, which worked with Squilla’s office on crafting the legislation, said using both tools could have a powerful effect on reducing plastic pollution.
“That combination probably is a good mix to really incentivize consumers to look for other options and bring a bag with them to the store,” he said.
Squilla’s previous attempt at regulating plastic bags — a proposed 5-cent fee on plastic bags introduced in 2015 – sputtered when opponents argued it would be a regressive tax on poor Philadelphians.
Two earlier attempts by other city lawmakers to ban plastic bags, in 2007 and in 2009, also died.
If the current bill were to pass, Squilla said, there would be outreach from the city to low-income communities to distribute free reusable bags. Those enrolled in the home-energy assistance program LIHEAP, for example, or receiving other low-income subsidies would be eligible for free bags.
“The areas of most concern are some of our underserved areas that have really seen the blight of these plastic bags strewn all over the place,” he said.
Masur echoed that sentiment, arguing that concerns about the impact on low-income residents have not come to pass in other cities and counties that have passed similar legislation.
“Many of the communities that have the most chronic litter problems are those very communities,” he said, “and they’re the ones who are clamoring to make sure we solve the problem to make their neighborhoods clean and have a higher quality of life.”
In the past, the grocery and petrochemical industries have lobbied against plastic-bag bills, arguing the legislation would place an undue burden on businesses.
But the new legislation would allow businesses to keep the fees they collect from distributing paper or thicker plastic bags. That money would not go to the city.
The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, which has opposed past attempts at plastic-bag legislation, declined to comment for this article.
In addition to the ban and fees on certain bags, recyclable paper bags would be required to be made of at least 40% post-consumer recycled content.
The fee on thicker plastic bags is meant to deter manufacturers that might try an “end-run” on the legislation by producing bags that are thicker than what is specified in the bill, Masur said. And the 15-cent fee — higher than what has previously been proposed — is meant to deter consumers from bothering with bags.
“If you’re buying a Gatorade for $1.89, you’re probably going to go, ‘I’ll save my 15 cents. I don’t need that bag,’” Masur said.
The legislation is the latest in a spate of plastic-bag bills that have swept the nation, including the recent passage of bans in Delaware, New York, and several New Jersey towns, such as Avalon, Stone Harbor and Brigantine.
Squilla said the current environment makes him confident his bill will pass.
“You can feel the momentum of where this is going,” he said, “and I think even the folks who were opposed to it early on now see that it’s almost inevitable, that it’s going to be everywhere.”
The Trump Administration has rolled back one of President Obama’s signature climate policies designed to cut coal plant emissions.
The new rule is aimed at helping struggling coal power plants remain open, and is expected to hamper efforts to cut carbon emissions.
Obama’s Clean Power Plan set national standards and would have cut carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the finalized CPP replacement rule to a room full of coal miners. Wheeler said the new regulation, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule, lets the states decide their own emissions standards.
“That means cleaner and more affordable energy for the American public,” he said.
Pennsylvania is the third-largest coal producing state in the country. But coal generated electricity plants have struggled to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.
Clean Air Council executive director Joe Minott says the move will slow progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“And also more particulate pollutants and sulfur dioxide and pollutants that will have an immediate effect on people’s health,” Minott said.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf is asking lawmakers to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a collaborative cap-and-trade effort among New England and Mid-Atlantic states that puts a price on carbon emissions.
Coal advocates praised the new rule. Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance says coal is a reliable source of power.
“The Affordable Clean Energy rule allows states like Pennsylvania to develop common-sense solutions that address their energy needs while utilizing advanced technologies and strategies to reduce emissions,” said Gleason. “Pennsylvania’s industries, businesses and consumers rely on the affordable and dependable electricity that is powered by Pennsylvania’s coal reserves and produced by Pennsylvania’s miners. The ACE rule will allow the Commonwealth to customize its approach to reducing emissions while reducing the economic hardships that would have resulted from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach called for in the Clean Power Plan.”
The Affordable Clean Energy rule is expected to face court challenges.