Just before we moved to Philadelphia, there was a major explosion in the largest oil refinery on the East Coast. Anyone who has traveled down I-95 has seen the refinery off to the right just before passing Philadelphia International Airport. About a month after the explosion Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the owner of the refinery, filed for bankruptcy.
The refinery borders on the Grays Ferry section of the city, whose residents have complained for years about the pollution spewing from the facility, causing emphysema, asthma, cancer and shorter lives. (Background report here.) The explosion and bankruptcy have energized the neighborhood group Philly Thrive to fight for final closure of the refinery. The neighbors are being joined in the fight by young environmental activists.
This past Saturday I went to a Youth Climate Strike Rally and Forum at a community rec center in the Point Breeze area just east of Grays Ferry. The room was packed with young people from all over the city and local residents. I was particularly struck by the words of Tyrique Glasgow who works with young people in Grays Ferry through his Young Chances Foundation. Recounting his own process of deciding to come to the forum, he explained how environment, urban anger, gun violence, and race all come together.
All day today (Monday, February 3, 2020) Philly Thrive and its allies have been sitting outside the gates of the refinery holding a People’s Confirmation action. The message in the title of their action is that the people must have a say in confirming the bankruptcy plan and the sale of the property to a development company with experience in converting properties like this to new uses. The people confirm, not just the bankruptcy judge, and the lawyers and bankers. Not the Trump administration, which came out last week in favor of keeping the refinery open. I didn’t go down to the activity at the plant, but I did go to the final activity. A preview of a film being made by a former worker at the refinery, documenting the explosion and the history of its environmental depredations. News of this screening has already brought the wrath of proponents of the refinery down on the filmmaker.
One of the things I noticed when we moved to Philadelphia last summer was how irritating the air was on my skin. Colder weather brought some relief, but I can see what I’m breathing in the dark particles that collect on the white base boards in our apartment. We live 10 miles north and upwind from the refinery. Most of the air pollution we breathe probably comes from the heavy traffic on the major highways and rail yards nearby, but closing the refinery will help air quality in the entire city and region, not just Grays Ferry and Point Breeze.
I actually met Tyrique before his talk during one of the “talk with your neighbor” exercises at Saturday’s forum. In the final exercise I talked with two young women from a Jewish synagogue. One of them used a buzzword of her generation “intersectionality” to describe Tyrique’s comments. To this 76 year old Irish guy, this fight to close the refinery and bring green jobs and businesses to the area is shaping up to bring together not only different races, generations, economic and educational levels, it is pulling together the fights for economic justice, restoring the environment, and dignity for all races and neighborhoods. As those working towards those goals come together, the opposition pushes back and sees its victory in keeping a refinery operating.