Neighbors are demanding answers following South Philly refinery explosion

Pat Loeb
June 21, 2019 - 4:01 pm
Front row from left Alexa Ross, Sylvia Bennett, Ron Doughty and Audrey Keyani

Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Following an explosion at a South Philadelphia refinery, several neighbors gathered with environmentalists at City Hall to demand much stronger action.

Mayor Kenney says city officials have convened a "working group" with plant officials to make sure neighbors get immediate answers in an emergency.

READ: Oil refinery explosions rattle South Philadelphia

Kenney also released these statements in response to this morning’s fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery:

“I want to thank the first responders of the Philadelphia Fire Department as well as the Office of Emergency Management for assisting Philadelphia Energy Solutions crews with the speedy and effective response to this incident. The Philadelphia Police Department also provided support by handling road closures and other assistance. I am also thankful the incident appears to have caused no serious injuries.

Nonetheless, I am aware of the concerns of the residents around the refinery in light of this incident, as well as another fire on June 10th. I convened a conference call this morning with leadership of PES, along with PFD and the Managing Director’s Office, and was assured that the two incidents are unrelated in their nature and cause. I was also informed of the speed with which a ‘shelter-in-place’ notification and other communications went out to residents in the immediate aftermath of this morning’s explosion.

Still, I believe that there is room for improvement, both in the operation of the refinery in light of two fires in as many weeks, and in the communication to residents. To that end, I have asked Managing Director Brian Abernathy and Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel to convene a working group with the leadership of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, as well as members of its Community Advisory Panel, to explore both concerns. A particular focus will be ensuring that air quality questions during such incidents are addressed immediately and communicated effectively to residents.

Also joining me this morning in the meeting with PES were a number of other elected officials who represent the residents in South and Southwest Philadelphia, including Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, State Representative Maria Donatucci, State Representative Jordan Harris, as well as staffers representing U.S. Senator Bob Casey and U.S. Representative Mary Gay Scanlon. They share my concerns about the need to continuously assess and improve the response to such incidents.

Those who live and work in close proximity to the refinery and all Philadelphians have our word — we are firmly committed to ensuring the safe operation of the refinery, and the safety of those in its vicinity.”

However, Alexa Ross with Philly Thrive says that's not enough.

"We want one public meeting where the different agencies come together to explain to the public what actually happened and what action's going to be taken because we've got a whole community in South Philly that wants answers," he said.

Ron Doughty has lived near the refinery for about 50 years so, when explosions woke him up in the middle of the night, he knew the orange sky and black smoke meant it had come from PES.

"I was worrying about the chemicals in the air, that's the main thing," he said. "I worry about it because I do have lung problems and I have heart problems myself."

This what they mean when they say “SW burning” --

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Doughty tells KYW Newsradio that he came with two of his neighbors to join environmentalists in demanding answers.

For Sylvia Bennett, the explosion and fire feels like confirmation of her suspicion about what the plant is doing to the air near her Southwest Philadelphia house.

"My two daughters came down with two different breast cancers eight months apart," she said. "A mother shouldn't have to go through that, with two daughters with cancer."

 Alex Bomstein, of the Clean Air Council, said the group has requested an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Board.

"This site shouldn't be having so many problems in such a short span of time, and there's clearly something going wrong," he said.

Philly Thrive says they're also asking Air Management Services not to renew the plant's Title V license when it expires next month.

In a statment, City Spokeswoman Deana Gamble had this to say in response to today's protest:

"The Health Department maintains a working relationship with PES. We maintain an air monitor close to the refinery that operates 24/7, receive notifications of exceedances of emission limits from them, and can and do issues notices of violations for exceedances. They are required to submit plans and models for their plants to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local air pollution regulations. With regard to today’s fire, the Health Department had inspectors on-scene as soon as possible taking samples and testing the air for immediate health hazards. The samples are currently being tested, and monitoring will continue."