Advisory group to seek public’s views on future of PES refinery

Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia, Friday, June 21, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia, Friday, June 21, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Philadelphia’s newly formed PES Refinery Advisory Group will hold three public meetings in August seeking input on the future of the soon-to-be shuttered refinery in South Philadelphia. An explosion and fire destroyed parts of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions facility in June. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month.

The city’s 26-member advisory group draws from labor, academia, business interests, and city government, as well as environmental and community groups.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city wants a variety of input from all stakeholders, including those with environmental expertise, neighbors who live near the refinery, and workers.

“We don’t expect them all to agree, but we do think all their voices are important to hear,” Abernathy said. “Those voices are also really important for the public to hear.”

The refinery struggled financially before the explosion led to the planned shutdown and bankruptcy earlier this month, the second bankruptcy filing in less than two years. The shutdown will result in more than 1,000 people losing their jobs by the end of August. The union that represents about 640 workers at the plant is pushing for a buyer to fix and reopen the facility. But neighbors have complained for years about air pollution from the complex, and environmental groups say that whatever happens, it should not become another refinery. 

Several federal, city and state agencies are currently investigating the incident, including the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Philadelphia fire marshal’s office.

Abernathy said the city recognizes its limited role in determining the future of the 1,400-acre site.

“You’re not going to hear me say we can dictate what happens on that site,” he said. “But I think we can have some influence on what happens at that site, [including] through licensing and permits. I think it’s incumbent on us as the jurisdiction most impacted by the refinery, both the good and the bad, that we play a role here.”

The city wants to understand all the complex issues surrounding safety, public health, and jobs that the 150-year-old facility has brought to the area, he said. 

The city has divided the group into four committees.

Mark Alan Hughes directs Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and is a member of the PES Refinery Advisory Group as well as the chair of the environmental and academic committee.

Hughes said that while the city has limited influence on what a private company in bankruptcy will end up doing with the site, it does have a responsibility to its residents.

“The city doesn’t necessarily have the big powerful governmental jurisdiction regarding oil refining,” Hughes said. “But it is on the front line of what happens [at the site]. So it has a role. It’s a narrow role, but it’s an important one.”

Hughes said one thing the city does have authority over is land use.

“It is extremely important for the city to give people a chance to be heard,” he said. “That kind of democratic deliberation is an important part of the process, and it makes it much easier in the long run to make good and sustainable and stable kinds of decisions.”

Three public meetings are scheduled. The first will be at 5:30 p.m Tuesday, Aug. 6, at Preparatory Charter School in Point Breeze. Those interested in speaking should email refinery@phila.gov.

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