The South Philadelphia Refinery has a long history dating back to the Civil War era, when it was built when Atlantic Refining Co. Gulf Oil opened a neighboring facility in 1926, and the two businesses were purchased by Sunoco in 1988 and 1994 respectively. The complex grew into the largest refinery on the east coast and leaves an equally great legacy of pollution in both the soil and the water table. Sunoco was in danger of bankruptcy and formed a joint partnership with the Carlyle Group to establish Philadelphia Energy Solutions in 2012. The company went bankrupt in 2018, but the explosion and fire resulted in a complete closure of the facility in July 2019. Last summer, Hilco took control of the facility with the goal of creating a distribution hub. Sunoco remains responsible for the legacy contamination. But Hilco is now responsible for monitoring and addressing current emissions.
In 2015, Congress authorized the EPA, through the Clean Air Act, to require refineries to measure benzene emissions through shielding monitors from 2019, so the data covers just two years. The measurements required by the 2015 Refinery Sector Rule are taken at two-week intervals, and refiners may deduct what are considered “background levels”, or those lowest mean values. Fence monitoring of emissions will continue even though the facility no longer functions as a refinery as it is still authorized as a refinery and a major source of air pollution under the federal Clean Air Act.
In fact, the results at PES peaked in early 2020, after the refinery closed, but during the decommissioning, which continues today. Benzene emissions averaged 128 and 189 micrograms per cubic meter in the first two weeks of January 2020 and 189 in the first two weeks of February 2020. One of the monitors discovered an average of 80 micrograms at the end of July 2020. In a 2019 report to the EPA submitted just a week before the explosion that triggered the shutdown, PES attributed the emissions to problems at the tank farm and an offsite gasoline spill in the Schuylkill River.
When questions were asked about the releases and the current status of the decommissioning, a Sunoco spokesperson referred all comments to Hilco Redevelopment Partners, the company that bought the site from bankruptcy in June last year. A Hilco representative said the company was unable to answer questions within the deadline, but repeated statements from the EPA and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health that the benzene release measured at the fence is not an indication of the health effects for surrounding neighborhoods .
The usable benzene level, set by the EPA at 9 μg / m3 (micrograms per cubic meter), was established as a way to measure whether refineries meet the agency’s Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards, according to EPA Region 3 spokesperson Terri White. If the annual average is above that limit, a refinery should perform a root cause analysis.
“This level does not correlate with any particular measure of risk,” the EPA’s White wrote in an email.
A fire burns at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery hours after a series of early morning explosions on June 21, 2019. (Emma Lee / WHY)
Dr. Landrigan disagreed. “Any exposure, even the smallest exposure, increases the risk,” he said. “And that is especially true for children. EPA standards are always a balance between what is ideal, in this case zero exposure, and what the EPA regulators think is achievable. Standards therefore do not reflect absolute safety. “
He said studies consistently show that communities with fencing are more likely to get cancer than communities without high levels of toxic chemicals.
EPA’s White said the fence measurements are not an indication of individual exposure, and weather plays a big role in determining impact.
“It is important to note that benzene levels monitored at the edge of refineries do not reflect community benzene levels,” White said. “The monitoring data, and in particular the annual mean difference between upwind and downwind readings, is more an indicator of benzene emissions from facilities.”