Incident basics and investigation
What caused the explosions and fire at the PES refinery on June 21, 2019?
The cause and origin of the explosions and fire are currently unknown and remains under investigation by local, state, and federal agencies.
When will the investigations be complete?
Given the complexities of this incident, we anticipate that the investigations will take months to complete.
Who is responsible for the investigations and the ongoing emergency response?
Multiple local, state, and federal agencies have been on-site since the incident to perform coordinated, multi-disciplinary, and thorough investigations while providing close oversight and operational support for the emergency response:
- Philadelphia Fire Department Fire Marshal’s Office and
- Hazardous Materials Administrative Unit
- Philadelphia Police Department
- Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management
- Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
Is the incident under control? What does “under control” mean in this case?
Yes. Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel declared the incident “under control” on September 24th. In this case, declaring the incident “under control” means that emergency responders are confident that they know enough about what is happening at the incident site and that all hazards have been confined to the immediate site of the incident. Teams from the Philadelphia Fire Department had been on-site 24/7 since the explosion on June 21st. While the Fire Department will no longer maintain a constant presence at the site now that the incident has been declared under control, the City’s emergency response personnel remain in frequent contact with PES and continue to actively monitor the site.
Are residents safe while the refinery is shutting down?
Yes. Local, state, and federal agencies have been carefully monitoring the site and the ongoing cleanup activities performed since the June 21st incident. These efforts include conducting additional air monitoring at the site. The refinery is not actively refining crude oil or producing any fuel or related products. However, PES does have a caretaker crew working on-site to maintain and monitor the facility.
If the refinery is “shut down,” why do I still see activity there and some vapors coming from smokestacks?
The refinery is no longer refining crude oil. However, PES’s caretaker crew remains on site to maintain and monitor the facility. Certain core systems, like the boiler house and water treatment plants, remain in operation at the site. Various systems at the site must remain pressurized or otherwise active to ensure the safety and structural integrity of the facility. Accordingly, occasional flares and steam emissions may occur at the site even though the facility is shut down.
What’s the purpose of the HF (hydrofluoric acid) neutralization process?
Neutralizing and safely disposing of the HF on site was one of the highest priorities for the emergency response team. Most of the HF that was present has been successfully, and safely, neutralized.
Future of the site
Why isn’t the City stepping in to dictate the future of the refinery site?
The City’s authority and control over the future of the site are very limited. The site is privately owned and is currently zoned for heavy industrial use. Since PES filed for bankruptcy, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware has the leading role in shaping the disposition of the site and the immediate future of PES.
What will PES do with the site? Sell to a new refinery operator? Redevelop the site for something else?
Right now, we don’t know what will happen with the site, as its fate will be determined in the ongoing bankruptcy proceeding. However, we do know:
- The 1,300-acre site is important to the regional economy. The refinery supported thousands of jobs and a highly skilled workforce, and it played an important role in the regional petroleum market and supply chain.
- The refinery site also has endured extensive soil and groundwater pollution during its long history of refinery operations, and that will limit the types of uses that are possible. Much of the pollution occurred before environmental regulations existed.
The purpose of the Refinery Advisory Group is to help the City better understand and plan for potential outcomes.
Refinery Advisory Group
What is the mission of the Refinery Advisory Group?
The Refinery Advisory Group is charged with gathering information about the refinery site and its possible future use from a wide array of stakeholders and presenting that information to the City in the form of a final report.
The Refinery Advisory Group includes four committees—community, labor, academic/environmental, and business. The committees will focus on presenting a full picture of those specific areas in the final report on that will be issued.
Who are the members of the Refinery Advisory Group?
- Brian Abernathy, Managing Director, City of Philadelphia
- Adam Thiel, Fire Commissioner and Director of Emergency Management, City of Philadelphia
- Harold Epps, Director of Commerce, City of Philadelphia
- Anne Fadullon, Director of Planning and Development, City of Philadelphia
- Tom Farley, Health Commissioner, City of Philadelphia
- Christine Knapp, Director of Sustainability, City of Philadelphia
- Rich Lazer, Deputy Mayor for Labor, City of Philadelphia
- Patrick Patterson, SE Regional Director, PA Department of Environmental Protection
- Sam Robinson, PA Governor’s Office
- Aliyah Stanger, PA Department of Community and Economic Development
- Anne Bovaird Nevins, Chief Strategy and Communications Officer, PIDC
- Matt Cabrey, Executive Director, Select Greater Philadelphia
- Edward Hazzouri, Chairman, Hazzouri and Associates, LLC
- Denis O’Brien, Senior Executive Vice President, Exelon Utilities
- Anna Shipp, Executive Director, Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia
- Jerry Sweeney, Chairman, Philadelphia Regional Port Authority
- Craig White, President & CEO, Philadelphia Gas Works
Environmental and academic members
- Peter DeCarlo, Associate Professor, Drexel University
- Mark Alan Hughes, Founding Faculty Director, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, University of Pennsylvania
- Christina Simeone, Ph.D. Student, Colorado School of Mines/National Renewable Energy Laboratory
- Jody Della Barba, President, Girard Estates Area Residents
- Otis Bullock, Jr., Executive Director, Diversified Community Services
- Donna Henry, Southwest Community Development Corporation
- Shawn Jalosinski, Executive Director, Sports Complex Special Services District
- Anton Moore, Unity in the Community
- Claudia Sherrod, Point Breeze community activist
- Ethel Wise, Wilson Park Resident Council
Labor and employment members
- Mark Lynch, Safety Coordinator, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
- Ryan O’Callaghan, Business Manager, United Steelworkers Local 10-1
- Jim Snell, Business Manager, Steamfitters Local 420
- Tony Wigglesworth, Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee
How was the public involved in this process?
Between August and September 2019, the Refinery Advisory Group held six (6) public meetings near the refinery site, at the Preparatory Charter School in Grays Ferry. Each meeting focused on hearing presentations and testimony from specific stakeholder groups and provided opportunities for members of the public to offer remarks pertaining to the refinery site. Members of the public were also given the opportunity to submit written comments directly to the Refinery Advisory Group. Materials from these public meetings have been made available online at www.phila.gov/refinery.
What will the City do with the feedback?
The City prepared a report that summarizes the information collected through the various public meetings and comment process. The report was released on November 26, 2019.
What’s the purpose of the report?
Although the City has limited control over the PES site, the City has the responsibility to plan for possible scenarios in the future. The report will help the City understand the effects that the closure of the refinery, and possible future uses of the site, will have on Philadelphia’s economy, environment, public health, and safety.
Who becomes responsible for cleanup and remediation after the refinery is sold?
Sunoco retains responsibility for cleaning up contamination at the site that occurred before 2012. Contamination of the site that occurred after 2012 remains the responsibility of PES at this time, but the bankruptcy process and the future ownership of the site may change that.
What research is available on the impact of refinery operations on resident health? What does it say?
Since the refinery is one of many polluters in the City, and it has existed at that site for more than a century, it is difficult to do an accurate study that shows the causation between the refinery operations and public health.
Have there been any lawsuits filed against the refinery regarding health impacts of the refinery?
The City is not aware of any lawsuits against the refinery pertaining to its health effects.
Would the City consider rezoning the site?
Rezoning the site would require an act of City Council. However, many existing uses would be allowed to continue operating as nonconforming uses due to the long history of the site as a heavy industrial facility.
Is there any scenario where the City would take the property by eminent domain?
Currently, the City does not have enough information to warrant taking ownership of the site via eminent domain. Eminent domain is a long and complicated process and would require the City to expend significant public funds to acquire, assess, and clean up the site. This process may also shift the cleanup responsibility from the businesses that owned/operated the site to the City, and hence, local taxpayers.