Biggest Oil Refinery Cleanup In US History Begins In Philadelphia

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Philadelphia is famous for many things — the Liberty Bell, Constitution Hall, Rocky Balboa, and the Philly cheese steak sandwich. There’s one more thing on the list of achievements the city can crow about. It is home to the largest, dirtiest, most disgusting former oil refinery in the United States. Known as Philadelphia Energy Solutions today, it began refining oil on the banks of the Schuylkill River in 1870. Over the years, it has expanded to include 3000 storage tanks and enough piping to reach Florida — most of it wrapped in asbestos. Gasoline, once a worthless byproduct of heating oil, was routinely dumped into the soil where it leached into the Schuylkill, according to a report by Reuters.

PES refinery in Philadelphia. Image credit: Google Maps

On June 21, 2019, part of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, the largest oil refinery on the east coast of America, blew up. Afterward, the decision was made to close the facility permanently. Now plans are afoot to clean up the site, a process that will take at least a decade and cost a billion dollars or more.

The Oil-Soaked Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

Fossil fuel apologists like to point out that oil has fueled the greatest economic engine the world has ever known. That is true. Thanks to oil and the internal combustion engine, humans have bridged the Golden Gate, dammed the Colorado, built skyscrapers more than 100 stories high, constructed roads that span continents, and put more than 1.4 billion motor vehicles on the world’s streets and highways. Oil is also the raw material that gives us plastics, the miracle substance found in virtually all consumer products.

So yes, oil can truly be said to be the bedrock on which the global economy is founded. But it is a curse as well as a blessing. While we look forward to a low carbon future, we must also reckon with the detritus and environmental harm left behind by the Age of Oil. Reuters claims there are about 450,000 polluted former industrial and commercial sites in America and half of those are contaminated with petroleum.

The US is also home to 135 refineries, 6 of which have closed recently due to a decline in demand for petroleum products. “That’s one of the reasons that a lot of these refineries have been kept going for such a long time,” Fred Quivik, an industrial historian from Minnesota tells Reuters. “They’re so contaminated, it’s hard to figure out what else to do with them.” Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne School of Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, says “The energy transition will require massive attention to both new infrastructure and addressing aging or outdated systems.”

Who Is Going To Pay For This Mess?

While all those oil apologists are bragging about the wonders created by extracting and burning petroleum, they conveniently fail to mention that the only reason the industry is profitable is because the bizarre so-called free market system the world operates under allows oil companies to completely avoid the economic consequences of their actions. Got a site that will take a billion or more dollars to clean up? Sell it to some shell company with no assets and if that doesn’t work, duck into the nearest federal courthouse to take a quick bankruptcy bath, leaving taxpayers holding the bag.

The Philadelphia refinery was originally owned by Atlantic Richfield. After a series of owners, it wound up in the hands of Sunoco which in turn sold it to the Carlyle Group after it agreed to be responsible for any environmental cleanup. Sunoco claims to have over $200 million in insurance coverage to pay cleanup costs, but Amanda Goodin, a lawyer for Earthjustice, tells Reuters that comparable projects, such as clearing shuttered mining operations, can run into the billions of dollars. “These cleanups are just enormously expensive, and companies basically never set aside enough money to fully remediate a site,” she says.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says it has court orders that will hold Sunoco and Hilco Redevelopment Partners, a Chicago based firm that bought the assets of the refinery in bankruptcy, fully responsible for all cleanup expenses. If true, it will be the first time in history that has happened.

A Toxic Stew

Image courtesy of Chemical Safety Board

Roberto Perez, CEO of Hilco Redevelopment, tells Reuters the site one day will be a clean energy centerpiece with the existing warehouse complex becoming a charging station for a fleet of electric delivery vehicles. The company is also considering a hotel, residential homes, and a restaurant on the site. The project is expected to take 10 to 15 years to finish. Cleanup and construction are projected to create about 13,000 jobs, the company said, with another 19,000 jobs tied to warehousing, offices and transporting goods.

But first, hundreds of miles of piping must be dismantled, old refinery equipment removed, and the remaining buildings rehabilitated. Then there is the problem of ridding the ground the refinery stands on of the toxic stew that has seeped into it over the years. Perez says the quality of the earth at the 1300-acre site varies widely and will have to be handled differently depending on contamination levels. Clearing toxins like lead must be done with chemical rinses or other technologies, says Charles Haas, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The site also contains polluted groundwater and giant benzene pools lurk beneath the surface, according to environmental reports that Sunoco filed over the years with the federal and state authorities.

Environmental Justice

People who live in the area could use some of those 13,000 jobs. Traditionally, the poorest communities exist close by toxic industrial areas like PES. It’s a process that feeds on itself. Polluted areas mean low real estate prices. Low cost housing attracts people who can afford it. The other side of the coin is that poor communities have little political power, so when captains of industry go looking for cheap land where they can run their heavily polluting businesses without objections from the neighbors, poor communities are at the top of the list.

Abdul Muhammad lives near the Philadelphia refinery. He tells Reuters his life has improved since it shut down. His infant son suffers from asthma but now sleeps through the night for the first time in his life. His wife’s chronic headaches have become less frequent. “I just don’t want chemicals and environmentally contaminated things going in and out of there,” he says.

Philly Thrive, a community activist group, has been pressuring Hilco and city officials to ensure that neighborhood residents have a say in the cleanup and redevelopment. Residents have hopes the Biden administration — which has committed to direct 40% of any federal clean energy investment to communities most impacted by industrial pollution — will play a major role in reclaiming their neighborhood.

Philadelphia officials hope PES can become a model for refinery cleanups elsewhere. Kenyatta Johnson, a city councilman who represents neighborhoods surrounding the facility, sees a healthy, more prosperous community emerging from its toxic shadow. “Some may deem the site a health hazard and eyesore, but nevertheless it’s an opportunity,” Johnson said.

The Pollution Continues

The Gulf Coast along Texas and Louisiana has one of the highest concentrations of oil refineries. The brutal cold that enveloped the area this month has led to yet another environmental disaster for the area. According to The Guardian, several refineries were shut down because there was not enough electrical power available to keep them operating. But in doing so, they released thousands of tons of pollutants into the skies above Houston.

“These emissions can dwarf the usual emissions of the refineries by orders of magnitude,” Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s national clean air team, tells The Guardian. She adds that US regulators must change policies that allow “these massive emissions to occur with impunity”. The five largest refiners emitted nearly 337,000 pounds of pollutants, including benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, according to preliminary data supplied to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality. Sharon Wilson, a researcher at Earthworks, says the releases are alarming because “there is no safe amount of benzene for human exposure.”

Total pollution at Houston-area facilities during the cold snap totaled approximately 703,000 pounds, about 3% of the total pollution over permitted amounts for all of 2019 and almost 10% of 2018’s releases, according to TCEQ data analyzed by advocacy group Environment Texas.

When Will The Madness End?

Okay. We acknowledge that fossil fuels have powered the greatest economic miracle to ever take place in our galaxy. You can even argue they have lifted millions out of poverty, although that may not sit well with Abdul Muhammad and his neighbors who live near the PES refinery or those who live in the shadow of those refineries in Texas.

But enough is enough. Obtaining oil and gas has destroyed millions of acres of land, left tens of thousands of abandoned wells behind, and polluted our rivers, lakes, and oceans with spilled oil. And that’s before we start talking about alternations to the Earth’s climate that may lead to many parts of the Earth being uninhabitable by humans in the years and decades to come.

So thanks, Big Oil, Big Gas, and Big Coal. You were great — for a while. But it’s time to move on. The fact that the clean energy revolution will decrease your profits should not be a reason to degrade the Earth further. It will take centuries to clean up the mess you made and you will try every trick in the book to weasel out of paying for the harm you have caused.

The PES refinery may be the biggest oil refinery cleanup in US history, but it will be far from the last. People will be dealing with the fallout from the mess made by the oil and gas industry while raking in trillions in profits for a century or more. And that doesn’t begin to account for the cost of building the infrastructure needed to carry the clean energy revolution forward.

The truth is, society can no longer afford the harm that comes with the good you do. We used to think asbestos was a “miracle.” We don’t think that any more. We used to think oil and gas were essential to a functioning society but we don’t believe that any more either. So please, say goodbye and get off the stage. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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