Grays Ferry Refinery

Week 36: November 18, 2021

Week 2: The Refinery

The disaster at the Grays Ferry refinery began on the morning of June 21, 2019, with the failure of a corroded pipe and resulted in three successive explosions. The largest of these explosions blew a fuel tank into massive projectiles, including one weighing 19 tons that traveled 2,100 feet and landed on the opposite bank of the Schuylkill. Except that the disaster had been going on for much longer.

This was not the refinery’s first explosion and chemicals linked to disproportionately high rates of cancer and asthma had been leaking out for 150 years. As Philadelphia’s largest single source of air pollution and employer of over 1,000 workers during its operation, the refinery has a long, convoluted relationship with its neighboring communities.

After the 2019 explosion, the refinery was taken out of commission and Philadelphia Energy Solutions filed for bankruptcy and put the property up for sale. Local environmental activists who had long been fighting for cleaner air pivoted, demanding the refinery be repurposed into something cleaner for the community. Then, after it was sold to Hilco Redevelopment Partners (HRP) in a closed auction in New York, activists are now fighting to have a voice in the future of the property.


As part of their plans to redevelop the land into a warehouse complex, HRP is taking steps towards addressing racial inequality in job opportunities, which is particularly important as the Grays Ferry neighborhood in which they are located is majority black. Through their investment in career development programs for local students, and their redevelopment of the refinery into this international trade hub, the project will bring thousands of jobs to Philadelphia.

Their interest in creating jobs and opportunities for minorities appears genuine as they have taken steps such as connecting with the African-American chamber of commerce, whose chair-man stated in a letter of support for the project that he believed it would create a, “cleaner, more vibrant, and more just city for us all.”

Although they invested $225 million dollars into cleaning up the refinery, this effort is only going to cover the chemicals with an “exposure barrier”, prohibiting any future residual expansion. Additionally, while the huge warehouse complex may bring economic growth, it could also be a lost opportunity to repurpose the land (which is larger than the entirety of center city) into environmental projects such as expanding the Schuylkill river trail or memorial parks for the lives lost. Despite the calls of many community organizers, including Mr. Charles and Mrs. Tammy Reeves who spoke at a GFS assembly, HRP has no plans to acknowledge the death and illness brought about by their predecessors.


When it was in operation, the refinery leaked incredibly high levels of the carcinogen benzene, and was one of twelve refineries in the U.S. to consistently exceed the 9 microgram limit set by the EPA. During this time, the refinery's owners, Sunco Inc, went years without holding city-mandated public meetings about the pollution at the site. Even now that the plant has been shut down, the levels of benzene remain dangerous and the surrounding Grays Ferry area continues to be affected. Given its noncompliance with regulations, why was the refinery able to operate so close to residential areas?

When the city was expanding in 1934, the refinery had already been long established. Regardless, the local government redlined South Philadelphia and it was given a “D” and deemed “hazardous”, likely due to the refinery and other nearby factories. The Black population within the neighborhood was also another factor in its rating, as it was noted that there was “Negro encroachement in certain neighborhoods”. This made it difficult for people to get mortgages, so in 1940 the city decided to step in and built thousands of low-income housing units in close proximity to the refinery.

A study from 1987-2007 revealed that “three out of five Black and Hispanic-Americans resided in communities blighted by toxic-waste sites”, and while socioeconomic status was an important indicator, race was the most significant factor in this metric. Nationally, Black people are exposed to 1.5 times as much particulate matter than non-hispanic white people and are 75 percent more likely to live in so-called fence-line communities, defined as “areas situated near facilities that produce hazardous waste” (Source).

Despite all of this, the PES refinery continued to operate, even after knowledge about its impacts became widespread. Other emissions from refineries include particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, and the aforementioned benzene. Despite their ability to cause respiratory illness, asthma, heart conditions, cancer, and premature death, they were not classified by the EPA as toxic chemicals as recently as 2004. Although there were supposedly regulations in place, they were either inadequate or not actually adhered to.

Throughout the entire disaster, the city was consistent in asserting the safety of the refinery, with multiple officials denying any negative impacts and failing to notify the public of dangerous situations. After the Grays Ferry explosion in 2019, large chunks of debris tumbled into the streets and the sky grew thick with smoke. After a few hours, with the refinery still on fire and visibly emitting debris and smoke, the shelter in place order was lifted and the Philadelphia Department of Public health issued a statement that the fire did not pose any “immediate risk” to residents. Yet, environmental justice activist Sylvia Johnson, who has asthma, found herself unable to breath and had to go to the hospital and be put on oxygen.

Similarly, at a press conference after a fire in 2020, Mayor Jim Kenney asserted that “there are no findings that would suggest a threat to public health.” In addition to their poor responses to refinery explosions, the city also failed to disclose that benzene emissions were above the 9-microgram limit for the majority of two years.


This trend of air pollutants disproportionately affecting Black people does not only apply to Philadelphia. Nationally, Black people are 1.5 times more likely than white people to have asthma, and 3 times more likely to die of it. A study from this year also linked long-term industrial air pollution to Covid death rates, with each increase in microgram of pollution per cubic meter correlating to an 8% increase in mortality likelihood. This is particularly acute in Philadelphia, where the Covid mortality rate is 50% higher for Black patients compared to white patients.

As the redevelopment of the facility by HRP gets underway, it is critical that we remember its history and prioritize the well-being of neighboring communities. This is particularly relevant with the recent approval and construction of a new gas plant in South Philadelphia despite protest from local environmental groups. In the wake of all the damage done by the refinery, the question remains: who needs to be held responsible and how can reparations be undertaken to compensate and protect South Philly residents going forward?

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