City Council takes stance supporting a cleaner use for PES refinery site

Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery on August 8, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery on August 8, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

City Council took a stand Thursday on the future of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.  

The 1,300-acre complex is for sale in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington after the catastrophic fire and explosion five months ago that led the company to file for Chapter 11. 

In a resolution introduced and passed unanimously Thursday, Council expressed “strong interest and enthusiastic support” for proposals that are in tune with Philadelphia’s climate goals to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, based on 2006 levels. The PES refinery was the city’s largest stationary polluter and its single-largest industrial contributor of greenhouse gases. 

Council stated its preference one day before Friday’s deadline for interested bidders to submit their proposals for acquiring the refinery. Qualifying prospective buyers would participate in a final bidding round set to start Jan. 10, with an auction taking place Jan. 17 if PES ownership decides to go that route. 

“This resolution does not encourage one proposal over another, it simply voices our strong interest in proposals that consider the long history of actions taken by this body and the goals of the current administration to protect the health and wellbeing of our citizens,” said Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown, who introduced the resolution. 

So far, 15 parties have expressed interest in participating in the bidding process, according to Bankruptcy Court documents, but their identities have not been disclosed. 

Former PES chief executive Phil Rinaldi, dubbed “Fossil Phil” by environmentalists, and S.G. Preston, a Philadelphia-based biofuels company, have expressed their interest publicly. National real estate development and investment firm Industrial Realty Group met with representatives of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, whose membership includes refinery workers, according to a representative of the union. 

Council’s resolution says there is “an enormous opportunity” for businesses to “reimagine future uses of the refinery” that protect the environment and the health of the city’s residents and provide jobs. And it urges the City of Philadelphia to use its capacities to advise PES during an auction, to ensure that the future land use reduces greenhouse gas emissions and protects the safety of city residents. 

Matt Walker, advocacy director of the Clean Air Council, said the resolution sends a strong message to potential bidders about the types of land uses City Council would prefer to see. And it sends a hint that the council could be open to working on future legislation to move the resolution further. 

“Specifically, [Clean Air Council] asked City Council to consider an ordinance to prohibit the storage and use of unsafe levels of hydrofluoric acid, a deadly chemical. And to explore options for changing the zoning district in the area of the refinery site so that it reflects the City of Philadelphia plans and goals,” Walker said. 

Under new standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, companies are not required to provide public access to information about what kinds of chemicals are stored on their sites or to take certain measures to prevent accidents. The Obama administration strengthened safety protections after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people in 2013. Those rules included a requirement for companies to review less toxic alternatives. Safety experts have pushed refineries to adopt safer methods and to stop using hydrofluoric acid. 

According to Council’s resolution, 45,000 residents live within one mile of the refinery; 71% are people of color and 32% are below the poverty line, which qualifies the area as what the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection considers an “environmental justice area.”

“We need to consider smog, air quality, quality of soil, high rates of asthma, and cancer rates in that community,” Reynolds Brown said.

But neighbors of the refinery and members of the local environmental group Philly Thrive left the room after expressing disappointment in the resolution Reynolds Brown presented. Cameron Powell, a member of the organization, said an initial version of the resolution not only encouraged bidders that aligned with sustainability goals and protecting residents’ health and safety, but also opposed bidders that did not. 

“You must understand that simply stating and showing favor for things that you’re aligned with without actively vocalizing opposition to those who you are not is insufficient for change,” Cameron said.  

Council has scheduled a hearing for Friday to listen to public testimony about future uses of the refinery site. 

A ban on heavy oils, a bill on building tuneups

Also on Thursday, Council approved a ban on highly polluting oils and a bill that requires non-residential buildings over 50,000 square feet to perform tuneups to ensure energy efficiency. Both bills were introduced by Reynolds Brown.  

Heavier fuel oils — classified by numbers 6, 5, and 4 — contain about 300 times higher amounts of sulfur than lighter oils, and they release more pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, mercury, and nickel. Linked to asthma and heart and lung diseases, the oils are generally used in older commercial and residential furnaces and boilers. 

The dirty oils will be phased out over the next five years. 

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