Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee met with members of the environmental advocacy group Philly Thrive on Saturday to hear about their Right to Breathe campaign and their hopes for what will be done with a closed South Philadelphia refinery.
The group has been speaking out about health concerns related to living near the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery since 2015. Inslee joined them during a barbecue in Fairmount Park, where the group was celebrating a busy few weeks of advocating for their right to be a part of the conversation around the closure of the refinery.
When the presidential hopeful arrived on the scene, he was intercepted by activist Carol Hemingway.
“You can’t talk to hardly anybody sitting here that doesn’t have a family member or a friend that has cancer, or their kids got asthma,” Hemingway warned him.
Inslee sat down with the group under a tent to listen to their stories about living near the refinery. Nadia Chishim spoke about her two siblings who developed asthma after moving from West Philadelphia to near the refinery. Shamar Pitts, holding his 6-week old daughter, spoke about his family’s health problems and how he grew up always wondering about the weird smell in the neighborhood.
There are many factors that can contribute to a person’s risk for cancer and asthma, and there’s no way to prove the refinery caused individual residents’ health issues. For example, the community is also hit by pollution from the bordering I-76 expressway.
Nevertheless, city data has shown that the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery is Philadelphia’s single largest source of air pollution.
“We know we gotta change, we have to. The planet won’t survive it,” Pitts said. “She won’t survive it,” he added, referring to his daughter.
Inslee, the governor of Washington, said he will make confronting what he calls the “climate crisis” the number one priority of the United States if elected president. He spoke about his Freedom From Fossil Fuels plan, developing enhanced clean air laws, and working with the rest of the world to create an even stronger international climate program than the Paris Climate Agreement. His plan includes getting the entire electricity grid, all new cars, and all newly-constructed buildings to 100% renewable energy within the next ten years.
“When we go through this transition, we’ve got to have environmental justice for everybody. And that includes the people working in the oil and gas industry, and the coal industry,” he said. “We gotta help them transition into new jobs and new technologies.”
Inslee told Philly Thrive that they are the perfect ambassadors for a clean energy future in the United States. But the group has struggled to play that role at the local level. One organizer said that South Philadelphia residents have not been invited to join the mayor’s task force formed to address the future of the refinery site.
When asked what the group could do to help bring about a fair transition for the community and for the refinery workers who lost their jobs, Inslee encouraged Philly Thrive to keep bringing their demands to the mayor, city council, and state representatives.
“But they need a president,” he said. “The folks in this community need a president who is going to stand up for clean air laws.”