Following Refinery Blast, Philadelphia Looks to a Cleaner Future

Following Refinery Blast, Philadelphia Looks to a Cleaner Future

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Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery
January 30, 2020

Last June the largest oil refinery on the East Coast blew up. In the disaster’s wake, can the city of Philadelphia and its residents transition to a cleaner, more financially sound future?

On June 21, 2019 the largest oil refinery on the East Coast exploded.  The blast released thousands of pounds of toxic hydrogen fluoride gas into the surrounding Philadelphia air, and launched bus-sized debrisacross the neighboring Schuylkill River.  Through sheer luck, the dissipating effect of winds on toxic gasses, and thanks to the clear headed emergency action of refinery operators, no one was seriously injured in the moments following the blast.  

Yet many in this city point out that the refinery leaves behind a legacy of health impacts, including elevated asthma rates in the densely populated neighborhoods that surround the site.  The refinery also leaves a vast patch of urban landscape that is so toxic that it’s doubtful that it can ever be used for residential development.  

In the months following the explosion, the city, its residents, and business interests jockeyed over the site’s fate.  Proposals were floated to repurpose the site as a logistics hub, return it to its natural state as a tidal marshland, and even to repair and reopen the damaged refinery itself.  Yet, the decision on what to do with the site would ultimately be made within the walls of a Delaware bankruptcy court, where the priorities of the refinery’s creditors would take precedence.  

On January 22 the waiting came to an end.  The court announced that a Chicago-based real-estate company had agreed to purchase the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery for $240 million dollars.  The buyer has not yet announced a detailed vision for the site, but has a history of redeveloping industrial locations for less-polluting uses.  Yet the auction’s losing bidders aren’t looking to go quietly, and there may be more drama to come.

Mark Alan Hughes, director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and former founding sustainability manager for the city of Philadelphia, talks about the sale of Philadelphia Energy Solutions and what the future may hold for the city of Philadelphia.

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