A series of explosions in the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery shook South West Philadelphia early Friday morning. The refinery is the largest and oldest on the East Coast and has a long troubled history with fire and explosions dating back to a 1975 explosion that killed eight firefighters.
This time, five people were injured.
If the residents of the neighborhood around the refinery weren't too busy making sure that all their house windows were closed to protect air quality, they might have screamed: I told you so.
The site has been the target of protests by neighborhood and environmental activists -- most recently on June 1.
In 2017, Philly Thrive, a grassroots climate justice group in Philadelphia, conducted a survey of residents who live next to the refinery. Of the 341 respondents, 82% expressed negative views about the refinery. The most common grievance was the health hazard from the pollution, with a higher than average prevalence of asthma.
That is not surprising considering that the PES oil refinery is responsible for 72% of toxic air emissions in Philadelphia, according to a 2017 study by the NAACP in partnership with the National Medical Association and the Clear Air Task Force.
The Department of Public Health conducted preliminary air testing after the explosion and assured residents that there is no cause for alarm.
According to Mark Hughes, the faculty director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, operational risks in energy production always exists, and must be mitigated by good management.
The management of PES has been problematic. After years of financial strain, the company came back from bankruptcy last year, but still remains heavily in debt with turmoil and reshuffling in management. According to a report from Al Dia, the refinery violated its operating permit 24 times between 2013 and 2015. Less than two weeks ago, there was another fire in the refinery on June 10.
In a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney said that city Managing Director Brian Abernathy and Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel will convene a working group with members of the community and PES leadership to explore concerns.
That solution seems to miss the bigger issue: As a city, we handle environmental safety issues in a reactionary, instead of strategic, manner.
A few months ago, after The Inquirer published an investigation into environmental hazards in schools, the city looked to address lead poisoning. It took a PES refinery explosion for the city to convene a working group. Are we incapable of planning ahead for our environmental safety without a front-page headline? This is especially critical in a city with high residential density. With weakening environmental oversight and regulation from the federal government, a larger (and not entirely fair) burden falls to municipalities and states.
An alternative approach is to appoint a cabinet level administration official as an environmental safety officer. Someone who can strategically review the environmental threats and opportunities the city faces and connect the dots between them. Otherwise, we will continue to chase our own tail, responding to environmental crises after they occur instead of preventing them.
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