17. Pay up, PES! …and please clean up on your way out

This show aired on Friday June 28, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. You can hear the audio anytime afterwards. The script is below. Produced by Meenal & Tanya.

Hello & welcome 

Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. I’m Meenal Raval, and I’ll be your host.

Wow… so much as happened since last week, right? 

Last week 

Last week we talked about Mayor Kenney kicking the [climate] can down the street. Because while Mayor Kenney keeps saying he’s working on climate solutions, he’s got his administration supporting new fossil fuel projects. As Will Bunch wrote recently in the Inquirer, only in Pennsylvania can we find a pro-fossil fuel liberal Democrat. 

This week 

This week, we can only think and talk about the fire at the local refinery in South Philly, owned and operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions, or PES.

Many news outlets have covered this story, so we aren’t going to explain what happened. Instead, I’ll offer my perspective. 

The fire and explosions started last Friday, in the early morning hours of June 21st, and continued thru Saturday, and reached national attention over the weekend. 

By Monday, Federal agencies had come in to investigate. 

By Tuesday, citizens protested outside the refinery gates, shouting to Shut It Down! and demanding Pay Up, PES! At least 10 community groups made their presence known by blocking 4 lanes of Passyunk Ave for about 20 minutes. The protest was organized by Philly Thrive and included speakers representing Philly Thrive and POWER. More photos here.

By Wednesday, the company’s current CEO announced they were closing the refinery. Community groups rejoiced. Our Mayor grieved for the 1,000 jobs lost by the fossil fuel workers employed at this refinery. Meanwhile, former US congressman Bob Brady & former CEO of PES Phil Rinaldi are talking about reopening the refinery. Our hunch is that this operation is just getting mothballed — It’s not closing, it’s just being positioned for a sale. Think of it as closed while they figure out how to shift liabilities. 

On Thursday, we read about Hahnemann University Hospital closing. With 800 nurses, and employing 2500 people in Center City, this is also the teaching hospital for Drexel Medical School. According to the company president, this is due to “continuing, unsustainable financial losses.” He also said that they “cannot continue to lose millions of dollars each month and remain in business.” This is News You Can Use. 

On Wednesday, Mayor Kenney issued a statement about the PES refinery closing, saying he is extremely disappointed for the more than one thousand workers who will be immediately impacted by this closure. He also announced that the City is committed to supporting them during this difficult time. 

We need to ask ourselves… Do we heal our people, or do we heel to those wielding fossil fuel interests? 

I’ll say this again — a hospital takes care of people, people whose health is likely compromised by fossil fuel emissions. I remember my father in law, who never smoked a cigarette in his life, dying of lung cancer from his desk job at a refinery. 

In 1984 there was an industrial accident at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands of people due to gas leaking out into the neighboring town, exposing 500,000 people to the toxic gas. The Bhopal accident decades ago in India, killed thousands, quickly. Refineries like PES kill us slowly, by sickening us over the years.

Compare Mayor Kenney’s statement  to the statement by two environmental justice organizations, Philly Thrive & POWER, where they ask… 

In the wake of averted catastrophe, we need to ask ourselves, what is our vision for the future?  Is it one dictated by companies like [Philadelphia Energy Solutions] Carlyle?  Or is it a vision created by community and workers, together – to build a city that is equitable, sustainable, and healthy?  

The PES refinery owes the state of PA $3.6 billion in fuel taxes. That’s billion with a “B”. 

Insert clip from NBC Philadelphia — Refinery Fire Investigation — Billions in Debt, Refinery Avoided Air Regs, Records Show — video 2:42 length 

Coverage by NBC Philadelphia’s Refinery Fire Investigation earlier this week alerted us that the state may have settled with the company for $86 thousand. That’s not even 1% of what’s due to us. 

We see this as a colossal failure of both our city and our state. Aside from not paying their taxes, this revenue could help with cleanup. If they can’t pay their taxes, they probably won’t be able to pay for cleanup.

…now might be a good summer to leave the car at home, and consider using mass transit.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest refinery on the East Coast, processing 335,000 barrels of crude oil a day, about 14 million gallons. It’s also the largest single source of air pollution in Philadelphia. It has never been in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Never. Whether operated as Sunoco or Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the refinery in South Philadelphia has continued a pattern of blatant disregard for the regulations governing its operation as well as its neighbors, often denying local input. This has resulted in high asthma rates for local residents. 

We need to ensure that the refinery does indeed close. Even now, just with the announcement of the refinery closing, there are rumors of higher gasoline prices. Instead of scouring the city for gas stations with lower prices, now might be a good time to think about the road congestion and about the air quality in our city — now might be a good summer to leave the car at home, and consider using mass transit. As Will Bunch wrote recently…

The less gasoline we need to produce, the less likely it will blow up on a hot Philadelphia night. 

In addition to closing the refinery, we need to figure out a soft landing for everybody — not the abrupt disruption that has just frightened us. Many call it a just transition — for the workers, and for the sickened and scared residents. 

What do we want? Fair treatment for refinery workers. Transparency from the refinery owners and the City. Public participation in remediation and future plans for the 1,300 acre riverfront site. 

We see no one representing the public interest. 

Fair treatment for refinery workers would include… 

  • Retraining to develop skills for employment in the green economy
  • Outplacement assistance
  • Severance payments including supplements to unemployment compensation, 
  • Continuation of health insurance
  • Funding of retirement plans including matching payments that were deferred starting in April

Mayor Kenney has set up a safety working group, which includes Managing Director Brian Abernathy, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, the leadership of PES, and unnamed members of the company’s Community Advisory Panel. We see no one representing the public interest. 

The joint statement by Mark Clincy and Reverend Holston (of Philly Thrive and POWER) is worth reading in its entirety. It’s called — From Catastrophe to Closure:  A vision beyond a corporate energy system. I’ll read their 3 immediate requests of Mayor Kenney: 

  • First, we call for the Mayor to meet and work with the Attorney General Josh Shapiro to claim the back taxes that PES owes the state. These funds can be used to begin remediation and restoration work around the refinery, provide benefits to communities, and shore up pensions and transition plans for workers.
  • Second, Mayor Kenney should call for a moratorium on all fossil fuel development in the city, starting with a veto of the recently approved LNG plant that would be built in the same community that just witnessed a ball of fire over their homes. We cannot double down on fossil fuels when we see the potential disaster they have in our communities. 
  • Third, Mayor Kenney should convene a labor and community-led task force to do a transition study that shows how we can move the city away from fossil fuels and towards a more renewable energy future. This starts with a real and intentional conversation around how we move PGW from a natural gas utility to a renewable heating-and-cooling public utility that prioritizes workers, guarantees energy affordability, ensures the poor do not bear the burden of a transition, and that we don’t redline workers and communities out of renewable energy or new economy jobs. We also don’t want to redline neighborhoods because they are the sites of dangerous power plants.

Pretty powerful! 

So now, it’s time to engage with our elected representatives… 

Mayor Kenney is the Chief Executive for our City. We need him to enforce the law and collect the back taxes. We need him to consider the well-being of the workers at the refinery. He can’t just increase our property taxes to pay for cleaning up the mess left behind by this refinery. 

We’re calling Mayor Kenney.

  • And we’re asking that he collect the back taxes owed by PES — to Philly as well as the Commonwealth.
  • We’re also asking that Mayor Kenney show his commitment to “No New Fossil Fuel Projects” by vetoing the recently approved LNG project recently approved by City Council. 
  • And lastly, we’re asking Mayor Kenney to work on a study to transition Philly away from fossil fuels, with labor and with all of us.

Contact details for Mayor Kenney can be found on the Engage page of Philly Talks Climate

Thanks for listening to Philly Talks Climate! 




Thu June 27, 2019 

Wed June 26, 2019 

Tue June 25, 2019 

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer, Will Bunch  — Explosions! Floods! Cancer! What more will it take for Pa. to ditch fossil fuels? 
    • It’s already way past time for Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania to concede that the global fossil fuel revolution that started right here is also dead and gone, and that it’s time to start planning for a green 21st century.
    • Make no mistake, Philadelphia dodged a bullet — no, make that a dirty bomb — last week. 
    • Pennsylvania fosters that rare bird of pro-fossil-fuel liberal Democrats
    • Here’s what would would constitute bold leadership 
      • Gov. Wolf needs to immediately ban new permits for fracking until our health investigators can figure out what the hell is going on with cancer in Pennsylvania’s rural communities.
      • City Council and Mayor Kenney need to re-open the case of the $60 million gas plant in South Philadelphia, based on the new safety issues created by Friday’s blast and fire.
      • As a recent University of Pennsylvania report noted, city officials need to assume the refinery’s 150-year run is over — Philadelphia Energy Solutions may be too cash-strapped to repair Friday’s damage and re-open — and start planning a green future for what someday will be 1,300 acres of prime real estate. That means getting Sunoco, the site’s longtime owner, to clean up pollution and then to start thinking about how the lower Schuylkill can become that energy hub, but a clean one.
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer — Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney: No health risk from refinery fire — Dr. Caroline Johnson
  • PhillyThrive — Disrupt PES, Tuesdays @ 1 
    • Media present – WHYY, Fox 29, Inquirer, KYW News Radio, DeSmog Blog, Next City, Telemundo 62, ABC 
    • Groups present — 350 Philly, Sunrise Movement Philly, Philly IPL, Philly Thrive, Earth Quaker Action Team, Food & Water Watch, Penn Environment, Action United, Clean Water Action, POWER
    • Philly Thrive statement on PES refinery closure

Mon June 24, 2019

  • Grist, Rachel Ramirez — Residents say they’ve already had enough as investigation starts into Philadelphia refinery fire — resident Carol White
    • Benzene & toluene – human carcinogens
    • “Some may believe that after emerging from bankruptcy reorganization in August 2018, there is no longer a need to pay attention to what’s happening at Philadelphia’s neighborhood refinery,” wrote Christina Simeone, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Institute. “But, the exact opposite is true. Now, more than ever, involvement from municipal leaders and the public is pivotal.”
    • The neighborhood also stands to face additional health burdens as the Philadelphia City Council recently approved the construction of a $60 million liquidated natural gas plant next to PES. The project is expected to ring in up to $4 million in revenue for the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works per year.
  • PA Post — Investigations of Philadelphia refinery fire to include potential release of dangerous chemical — A hydrogen fluoride release could have had deadly consequences
    • Kristen Kulinowski, interim executive of Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
    • Occupational Safety and Health Administration
    • John Jenchur, a professor of practice at the Colorado School of Mines, said refiners have two choices in the process of turning crude oil into high-octane gasoline – hydrogen fluoride or sulfuric acid.
  • WHYY, Ximena Conde —  Should I stay? In wake of refinery explosion, neighbors reconsider living so close to a hazard
    • residents Cephus White, Questina Woods, Joseph Rose, Irene Rusell, Herbert Campbell
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly refinery fire could push cash-strapped owner closer to the brink — “I would be really skeptical they’re going to be able to raise the money to retool,” said Christina E. Simeone
  • EcoWatch, Massive Fire at South Philadelphia Oil Refinery Injures Five
    • Apparently the tank that blew contained both butane and propane. Why the tank contained both is a mystery and does not sound safe.
    • resident Daryl Lee
    • the refinery is the No. 1 source of particulate matter in the Philadelphia area on a good day
    • The group Philly Thrive, which has been protesting the plant since 2015, held a press conference outside Philadelphia’s City Hall Friday with four demands:
      • That Mayor Jim Kenney and the City Council fund a study on turning the refinery into public land for community-owned energy projects
      • That the Air Management Services and Environmental Protection Agency take stronger action, including imposing fines that would fund community projects and medical bills
      • That the two agencies not renew the refinery’s Title V air permit in July
      • That a public meeting is coordinated with all agencies to report to the community on the dangers posed by the refinery and the enforcement actions being taken
  • The Daily Pennsylvanian — Oil refinery explosion reveals long-standing environmental injustice — The Eco-Realist | Stand up with your South Philadelphia neighbors this Tuesday, June 25
    • We’re here to make a statement. We’re here to start a fight. We’re here to let the people know that breathing is our right.”
    • For years, these elected officials have turned a blind eye to the environmental and public health risks of Big Oil, and have deplorably lacked reliability, transparency, and genuine interest in the well-being of nearly 45,000 residents living within a 1-mile radius of the refinery — 71 percent of which are people of color and 32 percent of which are below the poverty line.
    • resident Sonya Sanders
    • South Philadelphia residents should not have to live in fear. And not only have they long been entitled to a thorough, independent investigation by city, state, and federal scientists on the long-term health risks of chronic particulate exposure, but they deserve a groundswell of support from Philadelphia’s neighboring communities.
    • We shouldn’t need to have sisters with breast cancer or brothers with asthma to expose the criminal nature behind the City Council’s recent 13-4 vote to expand fossil fuel production with Philadelphia Gas Works’ $60 billion liquified natural gas facility. We shouldn’t need to understand the physics behind global warming or become a climate activist to cry out against Big Oil. 
    • Sign Philly Thrive’s petition.

Sun June 23, 2019

Sat June 22, 2019

  • The Philadelphia Tribune — Small fire still burning at site of oil refinery explosions
  • NBC Philadelphia, Damn, This Is Bad: Fire Continues to Burn After South Philly Refinery Blast — The immensity of a Friday blast as a fire that burned into Saturday morning at Philadelphia Energy Solutions wasn’t lost on Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney
    • Late Friday, City Councilmember-at-Large Helen Gym called for the closure of the refinery until PES could assure the safety of its workers and neighboring residents.
    • Large pieces of debris were thrown blocks away and rained down onto streets and traffic lights. 
    • The fire broke out at the Girard Point portion. Gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and petrochemicals are also produced at the plant.
    • Concerned residents can call our [PES] Community Information Hotline at 215-339-7300 for updates and the status of the refining complex.
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer — ‘It looked like Armageddon’: Refinery fire puts focus on toxic chemical
    • a leak had been detected in “Unit 433.” = The unit uses hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst –  In its gaseous state — hydrogen fluoride — it can drift beyond the refinery fence line and imperil the public.
    • an HF gas cloud could travel seven miles in 10 minutes, involving 1.1 million residents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The toxin causes skin and respiratory irritation at low exposures. In large doses, it is fatal.
    • The United Steelworkers, which represents workers at the South Philadelphia refinery, has long called for the phaseout of HF at U.S. refineries.
    • The city’s Fire Department and Office of Emergency Management on Saturday said that the PES accident is under review by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Fire Marshal’s Office, and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).
    • The Point Breeze refinery’s alkylation unit uses sulfuric acid as a catalyst. Sulfuric acid is less hazardous but is required in far larger quantities to achieve the same result. The materials are not interchangeable — an alkylation unit is designed to use only one catalyst.
    • Refinery owners are reluctant to commit to sulfuric acid catalysts because it costs more and generates more waste. In a 2009 interview, the Sunoco refinery manager said the Point Breeze sulfuric alkylation unit requires two tanker loads of acid each day, compared with one delivery a week of hydrofluoric acid. Hydrofluoric acid also produces an alkylate with slightly higher octane.
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer — Refinery fire still burning: Philly ‘narrowly dodged a catastrophe
      • Two incidents in the same month prompted activists to call for the refinery’s closure and to convert the 1,300-acre site to public land and community-owned energy projects.

Fri Jun 21, 2019

  • Motherboard — Philadelphia’s Oil Refinery Explosion Is America’s Third Major Dirty Fuel Facility Fire in 6 Months — The “largest refining complex on the Eastern seaboard” exploded this morning at 4 a.m. A New York Con Ed facility and a Texas petrochemical facility have also experienced major fires in the past six months. 
    • Sunoco is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, L.P., an oil and gas transport company that has a 35 percent stake in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. has an 8 percent stake in the PES facility, specifically.
    • Sunoco also paid a fine of more than $3.6 million after spilling almost 200,000 barrels of oil at Pennsylvania’s John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in 2000.
    • Facilities such as the PES facility, which are owned and operated by private entities, have little incentive to invest in newer, safer facilities, or facilities that generate clean energy rather than processing fuel. These investments undermine corporate bottom-lines, even when the status quo isn’t profitable.
    • When old, dirty fuel facilities inevitably break down and explode, communities will continue to pay the cost.
  • Billy Penn — South Philly refinery’s long history of fires, explosions, deaths and injuries — Even former Mayor Rizzo got hurt in one of the blasts.
  • WHYY — City to convene safety working group after massive South Philly refinery fire — at 3100 West Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia
    • The refinery is the largest on the East Coast and one of the 10 largest in North America. 
    • “It’s a task force that should have been created a long time ago,” said Joseph Otis Minott, Executive Director and Chief Counsel of Clean Air Council. “It is an old plant being run by a company that is essentially bankrupt and has a long history of being non-compliant. It is past time for the city to consider whether it is safe for a facility like this to be operating so close to where people live.”
    • City Councilwoman Helen Gym called for the city to take steps towards considering a redevelopment of the massive complex. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the area where the refinery is located, said PES needs to be “held accountable” after the two fires.
    • The most scathing criticism of the PES and the city’s response to the explosion came from Fred Millar, an independent expert on public safety and hazardous materials. Millar said that the city should have evacuated South Philadelphia after explosions ripped through the facility. He said that the refinery uses highly toxic hydrofluoric acid to make gasoline and that there was a danger of the explosions rupturing the storage tank.
    • A hydrofluoride refinery is about the most dangerous facility anyone could have in the community,
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer — Explosions rip through South Philadelphia refinery, triggering major fire and injuring 5
    • Cosmo Servidio, Environmental Protection Agency head for Mid-Atlantic
    • Alkylation unit, for alkylate, used to boost gasoline octane
    • An oil refinery converts crude oil into a range of petroleum products, including gasoline, diesel and heating oil
  • WHYY — Feds to investigate refinery explosion; local health officials remain cautious
    • U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board – propane and butane
    • residents Kilynn Johnson, Sonya Sanders — Philly Thrive 
    • Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest refinery on the East Coast processing 335,000 barrels of crude oil a day (14 million gallons.). It’s also the largest single source of air pollution in Philadelphia. It has never been in compliance with the Clean Air Act.
    • Mostly propane? Or butane vat ignited?
    • alkylation unit that uses hydrofluoric acid
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer — Philly had just trained for an incident like refinery fire: ‘It worked out exactly how it should have
    •  Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy – Coast Guard and FBI also assisted.
  • NBC Philadelphia — ‘I Would Leave the Area for as Much of the Day as Possible’: Experts, Neighbors Worry About Air Quality After Refinery Fires The Philadelphia Health Department said air samples taken after the explosion showed no lingering effects from the blast. But the mayor wants an improved long term safety plan.
    • Two air samples taken by the Philadelphia Health Department later Friday morning found that none of 61 chemical compounds tested were at unsafe levels, an official with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management said.
    • Resident Shamar Pitt
  • KYW Newsradio — Neighbors are demanding answers following South Philly refinery explosion
    • Philadelphia Fire Department — Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, Office of Emergency Management, Philadelphia Police Department, Managing Director Brian Abernathy
    • Community Advisory Panel of Philadelphia Energy Solutions,
    • Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson
    • State Representative Maria Donatucci
    • State Representative Jordan Harris
    • staffers representing U.S. Senator Bob Casey and U.S. Representative Mary Gay Scanlon
    • Alexa Ross of Philly Thrive — We want one public meeting where the different agencies come together to explain to the public what actually happened and what action’s going to be taken because we’ve got a whole community in South Philly that wants answers
    • Ron Doughty, Sylvia Bennett
    • Alex Bomstein
    • Air Management Services not to renew the plant’s Title V license when it expires next month.
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility — Philadelphia — Press release 
  • GRID Philly — Is the real danger of the PES explosion being measured?
    • because of what they are and aren’t testing on site, and where their monitors are — City testing for ambient carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (combustibles), and hydrogen sulfide. But not particulate matter — Monitor at 24th and Ritner – This is similar to what you’d see coming out of a diesel truck or a diesel bus: that same kind of black unburned fuel that makes particulates in those situations is also making particulates in this fire.” — particulates are in a very high concentration.
  • The Green Cities — Explosion & Fire at South Philly Refinery this Morning and on same page — Liquid Gas Plant Approved LAST WEEK by City Council on Site where Explosion Occurred — Emergency siren wasn’t heard — unclear why 

Thu June 20, 2019

  • Plan Philly | Eyes on the Street, Joe Minott — Philadelphians deserve a voice in debate over future of local refineries
    • continues a pattern of blatant disregard — high asthma rates — Sunoco has denied local inputs — Lead, gasoline benzene – ensure proper remediation and fully explore alternative redevelopment scenarios for the refinery sites — 1300 acres — Communities must demand a seat at the table. No one should be forced to sacrifice their health simply because of where they live

Tue June 11, 2019



  1. Many thanks for your well-performed efforts.

    I certainly realize that it is only a part of possible solutions, but I sure wish y’all could include mention of renewable natural gas possibilities (and concomitant with agricultural production) through the exploitation of biogas systems for organic residue management.

    This touches so much upon what you speak of. I suggest mention where appropriate, rather than a full program on the option — although it may be appropriate at some point.

    Best, biogas bob

    On Fri, Jun 28, 2019 at 2:38 PM Philly Talks Climate wrote:

    > meenal posted: “This show aired on Friday June 28, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s > radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. You can hear the audio anytime > afterwards. The script is below. Produced by Meenal & Tanya. Hello & > welcome Hello and welcome to Philly Ta” >


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