Massive oil refinery leaks toxic chemical in the middle of Philadelphia


Last May, an air monitor on the border of the East Coast’s largest oil refinery recorded a level of benzene, a cancer-causing gas, more than 21 times the federal limit.

In June, an explosive early morning fire rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, terrifying nearby residents. Weeks after the disaster, as PES filed for bankruptcy and wound down operations, another air monitor in the network that rings the facility quietly registered the same sky-high reading for benzene. Long-term exposure to the sweet-smelling chemical has been linked to leukemia, lymphoma and a host of blood and immune system disorders.

That monitor, on the edge of this 1,300-acre complex of steel and pipe, is across an expressway from schools, parks, a strip mall and hundreds of homes.

Charles Reeves lives less than a mile and a half north of both air monitors in the largely African American neighborhood of Grays Ferry. A community organizer in this area of low-slung row houses, Reeves keeps tabs on the news in the neighborhood. He said no one informed him or his neighbors that they may have been exposed to benzene until he was contacted by NBC News, E&E News and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit newsroom based at American University.

“Poor people don’t get information,” said Reeves, 61, a grandfather and prostate cancer survivor. “Whichever way that blows, we’re going to be affected.”

The refinery disaster in June unleashed over 5,200 pounds of deadly hydrofluoric acid. A 4 a.m. leak inside a unit that produced high-octane gasoline caused a series of explosions that sent a ball of fire into the night sky. One blast hurtled a slab of metal bigger than a school bus across the river. Quick action by workers meant no one was killed or seriously injured. The refinery ceased production in August.

The catastrophic blaze provided a stark illustration of the hazards the refinery has long posed for Philadelphians. But even in its wake, officials gave no formal notice to residents that the same facility had registered among the highest benzene levels of any refinery in the country, according to data submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions, or PES, is just one of a dozen refineries of the more than 130 refineries operating across the country that have consistently exceeded the EPA’s “action level” of 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to data compiled and analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group that advocated for the fenceline monitoring program now required at all refineries.

High benzene readings registered by the network of monitors around a refinery don’t necessarily translate to dangerous levels in the community, according to the city and EPA. But former EPA officials who examined the hard-to-access data compared ongoing high benzene concentrations around the Philadelphia refinery and near other top benzene emitters to levels more often seen in China and India. And they criticized local and federal officials for failing to address the problem or adequately warn the public.

That information could also come into play for investors eyeing the South Philadelphia site. Its creditors are looking to unload the refinery at a closely watched bankruptcy auction on Friday, as both residents and former workers watch from the sidelines.

The pollution threat from the bankrupt refinery didn’t begin last spring or end in July 2019 for Reeves and his neighbors.

Opened in the late 1800s and long operated by Sunoco, the refinery was temporarily saved from insolvency in 2012 by a group of investors led by the Washington, D.C.-based private-equity giant Carlyle Group.

For more than a year and a half prior to the fire, air monitors near the blast site and along the perimeter of the refinery registered troubling levels of benzene, according to “fenceline” data submitted by refineries to the EPA.

The data, which EPA began posting early last year, shows the refinery exceeded the benzene emissions limit for all but 12 weeks from the end of January 2018 to late September 2019 — an 86-week span.

That may have exposed thousands of Philadelphians to troubling levels of benzene, including children like those who often play in the streets of Grays Ferry.

More than 297,000 people live within three miles of the refinery. About 60 percent of those residents are minority, and nearly 45 percent live below the poverty line, according to census data.

“The residents of South Philadelphia bear the environmental cost of the refinery and get almost none of the benefit,” said Peter DeCarlo, an atmospheric scientist who spent the last eight years at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. “It’s a classic environmental justice issue.”

In June, PES sent local and federal regulators a plan for how it aimed to cut benzene emissions, which the company mainly blamed on leaks and a neighboring facility.

Since then, city officials have not spoken publicly about the high benzene readings or the plan for addressing those emissions.