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Committee of the Environment meeting and the health repercussions of a refinery.

Updated: Jan 4

Local activist group, Philly Thrive, protesting the reuse of the PES oil refinery site for refining at Philadelphia City Council meeting

November 22nd, 2019

The Philadelphia City Council Committee on Legislative Oversight and Committee on the Environment held a joint hearing to listen to public testimony to assess options for the future of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery complex. Both proponents and opponents of the oil refinery defended their side of the argument.

The arguments

Opponents of reusing the site for an oil refinery focused their argument around environmental racism, the refinery disproportionately affecting people of color. These individuals cited that 71% of people who live near the site are people of color and 31% are below the poverty line. Professors from Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania also explained that there is no technological barrier to change the site to something more sustainable such as renewable energy. They argued that the science has spoken, and said that action must be taken now.

On the flip side, proponents of the refinery argued that PES is an important source of specialized, high-paying jobs. Blue-collar workers working at the refinery had an average salary of $80,000, and permanent staff had an average salary of $120,000. These proponents explain that there are very real economic consequences of not continuing the refinery that provided work for 6,300 individuals and had a total economic impact of $2.1 billion in Philadelphia alone. Representatives of these laborers explained that environmental alarmists devalue the work that workers at the refinery perform, and that they would never work for or support an organization that significantly harms neighboring communities. “Quote about how economic impact can not be recovered, especially those without a higher education.”

However, both groups agreed that whoever takes future ownership of the site must be a responsible leader and owner. Both opponents and proponents of the site recognize the health hazards caused by the negligence of past owners. The three health dilemmas related to the refinery that were brought up in great depths were asthma, hydrofluoric acid, and volatile organic compounds.

Philly Thrive blocking traffic to get their message across to civilians.

Health concerns


Local resident Carol Hemingway mentioned that one of the greatest concerns in regards to the refinery is its connection with asthma. This is particularly concerning since Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of Asthma of all cities in the United States. The Asthma Allergy Foundation of America ranks Philadelphia as the city with the 4th highest rate of Asthma, with ER visits and death rate for asthma being worse than average [1]. A 2012 study by The Center for Disease Control finds that African Americans and lower income individuals had higher rates of asthma [2]. As such, councilwoman Cindy Bass claims that asthma is absolutely connected to environmental racism.

Though there is no definitive answer to the question of what exactly causes asthma, The American Lung Association has found that factors such as genetics, allergies, respiratory infections, and local environment all contribute to its development [3]. Our previous article on the chemical analysis of the site did find that most areas of the site did not exceed the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s (PADEP) health standards for ambient air quality. However, a few areas of interest (most predominantly AOI 5) did show high concentrations of benzene. Studies have found that increased concentrations of benzene levels were associated with increased asthma and poor lung function among children [4]. In terms of fossil fuel emissions of the refinery, while carbon dioxide and air pollution cannot solely account for the increase in asthma rates worldwide, there is a remarkable correlation between rising asthma rates and carbon emissions [5].

Hydrofluoric Acid

A testimony from Bre Hasman, staff scientists at Clean Water action, sparked the discussion of the refineries use of hydrofluoric acid. Bre talked about how as a geochemist she used the chemical to dissolve rocks, and getting a tiny sample on her skin still led to massive burns; she considered herself lucky.

“HF burns will continue to burn until it neutralized. It will continue to burn your body and burn deeply.”

Oil refinery proponents agreed that HF is dangerous for both workers and local communities and no future conscious owner would continue the chemical’s use. During the time it was operating, chemical analysis of the site never found any examples of times fluorine or related chemicals exceeded PADEP standard in soil, water, or air samples. However, the refinery did use HF as a catalyst in the alkylation unit and the explosion in June released about 3271 pounds into the atmosphere [6].

HF is extremely corrosive with most damage coming from inhalation. Ingestion of tiny amounts can be fatal. HF penetrates tissue deeply and can cause skin, eye mucous membrane irritation [7]


Another chemical that was a point of concern was benzene. Benzene is a known volatile organic compound and human carcinogen. Past chemical analysis of the refinery site did find that benzene was a very common chemical found at concentrations higher PADEP health standards. Professor Howarth, who also gave a spoken testimony, pointed out that benzene is linked to leukemia and particularly lung cancer. This brings up more concern considering The National Cancer Institute found that Pennsylvania has one of the highest cancer rates in the US [8].

Though the future of the site is still undetermined, it is evident that the health of local communities is of the utmost concern for everyone, proponents and opponents alike. The health risks associated with the site should not be taken lightly when planning for PES’s next steps.

[1] Source: https://www.aafa.org/asthma-capitals/

[2] Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db94.htm

[3] Source: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/asthma/asthma-symptoms-causes-risk-factors/what-causes-asthma.html


[5] Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3196488/

[6] Source: https://www.inquirer.com/business/deadly-chemicals-philly-refinery-explosion-fire-new-findings-20191016.html

[7] Source: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/MMG/MMG.asp?id=1142&tid=250

[8] Source: https://gis.cdc.gov/Cancer/USCS/DataViz.html

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