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Dustin Slaughter

Demonstrators rally in South Philly against refinery expansion

The owner of the largest oil refinery on the East Coast wants to get a lot bigger in Philly.

South Philly has other ideas.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is aiming to create an energy port that would consist of oil storage tanks and a wharf for tankers, plus a pipeline to move refined crude from the company’s South Philadelphia facility to the Navy Yard’s 196 acre Southport section.

This has some residents and clean energy proponents deeply concerned and angry, as evidenced by the approximately 150 people who showed up this afternoon for a demonstration. Participants hailed locally from North and South Philly and Germantown, and as far away as Pittsburgh, and channeled their feelings into song, dance and speeches.

“For decades the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery has poisoned my family, down to the youngest. We’re planting the roots of resistance to any fossil fuel expansion now to make it clear to Gov. Wolf and Mayor Kenney that we reject the oil cartel’s plan to turn our city into a sacrifice zone,” said Chinara Bilal, a member of nonprofit advocacy group ACTION United.

That “poisoning” is due in no small part to the thousands of pounds of toxic material the refinery spews into the air — over 492,000 pounds in 2014, according to the EPA. The refinery has also sustained 24 operating permit violations since 2013, including mechanical malfunctions and abnormal emissions (per AL Dia). While toxic emissions have declined since 2011, this is little comfort to some in the community.

Kelley Collings, a 16-year public school teacher who teaches at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, told Billy Penn at the rally that childhood asthma rates in the city are some of the worst in the nation.

When asked if she sees asthma as a persistent problem among district students, she nodded. “It doesn’t help that so many schools now only have one nurse,” she said.

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Dustin Slaughter

Natasha Bagwe, a public health researcher and volunteer with Physicians for Social Responsibility, told the crowd that based on EPA numbers, upwards of 45,000 people live within a one-mile radius of the facility. The majority of them are low-income minorities and are disproportionately impacted by not only pollution, but the threat posed by oil trains.

A report on oil train pollution and the potential for catastrophic accidents, released by the non-profit PennEnvironment, found that “Philadelphia’s communities of color and low-income communities face disproportionate threats from oil train explosions and pollution when compared with white and higher-income communities.”

Phil Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, has envisioned Philadelphia becoming a “Houston of the East Coast”, and touted the amount of jobs such an endeavour would create as reason to move forward.

If approved by the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, the creation of an energy port would generate approximately 590 jobs, Governor Tom Wolf announced last year. Non-energy development, however, would create well over three times that: 3,720.

“I want to see what the free market and private sector feel is a good investment to make,” said Wolf, according to the Inquirer. “I want this to be a place that creates good jobs, and I’m willing to wait and see what the best offer is.”

Detailed proposals for Southport expansion are due next month. PES is one of 15 bidders on the site.

A spokesperson for Philadelphia Energy Solutions was not immediately available for comment on the demonstration.

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