The largest oil refinery on the East Coast is about two miles from Penn's campus – but after decades of pollution and deadly fires, the refinery will close permanently following its sale to Hilco Redevelopment Partners.
Located in South Philadelphia and previously owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the refinery and its toxic air emissions have long been cited as the cause of increased rates of health problems like cancer, heart disease, and asthma in South Philadelphia residents. The refinery shut down in June 2019 after a series of explosions lead to a severe fire. Despite efforts to reopen the refinery, most notably by the Trump administration, Hilco promises to keep it closed and turn the property into a "mixed-use industrial site," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Though Hilco does not yet have formalized plans in place, they have previously opened warehouses for retailers like Amazon, FedEx, Volkswagon, and Harley Davidson in other spaces they redeveloped.
Philly Thrive, a local environmental justice group that has protested PES since 2016, celebrated an end to the refinery and the pollution it caused. But the group said they still need to make sure Hilco acts in the best interest of the community, such as creating local jobs while making sure the air is clean.
"We’re still trying to make sure what Hilco does is going to be in line with the people’s needs," said Jendaiya Hill, a Swarthmore sophomore and a youth organizer for Philly Thrive. "It’s never been about just the refinery, it’s been about the right to breathe and justice."
Philly Thrive held a series of demonstrations in January while the refinery was up for auction, and Hill said she is confident the group played a large role in closing the refinery for good.
“We made it clear that the people of Philly and the people of Philly Thrive were not going to back down,” Hill said. “I can’t imagine where we would be right now without Philly Thrive’s leadership, and Philly Thrive’s powerful organizing.”
For Maeve Masterson, a Fossil Free Penn member and College sophomore who attended Philly Thrive protests, the confirmed closure of the oil refinery is a reminder of the power of community organizing.
“I think that the permanent closure of the oil refinery was an incredibly well-deserved and far too delayed victory for South Philadelphians,” Masterson said. “The closure was a really strong reminder to all social justice activists, Fossil Free Penn included, of the power of collective action and community resistance, and the power of allowing vulnerable communities to start shaping the political process.”
Although the oil refinery was the oldest on the East Coast, Philadelphia's largest polluter, and located near Penn, College senior and Philly Thrive member Alexandre Imbot believes not enough Penn students are aware of the refinery's hazards and history.
Imbot himself was motivated to join Philly Thrive after witnessing a video of the oil refinery explosion that occurred last June.
“I could go to 10 people on Locust Walk, and nine of them don’t know there’s even a refinery,” Imbot said. “We, and our hospital system, are in the blast zone.”
Lucy Corlett, a College senior and Fossil Free Penn member who attended Philly Thrive protests, believes that the lack of awareness of the oil refinery is part of a larger ignorance of the impact of fossil fuel industries.
“I think youth and college students have a lot of organizing power that we aren’t harnessing at the moment," Corlett said. “A general awareness, on and off-campus, by Penn students of big industrial sites, whether it’s a refinery, whether it’s a coal plant, is good.”
Philly Thrive will work on their new goals, which involve dismantling the refinery’s infrastructure, securing funding to assist in cleaning up the land, garnering active public involvement in re-development decisions, and creating union jobs in the surrounding neighborhood, Hill said.
“[The oil refinery site] has caused unimaginable health conditions to an entire community," Hill said. “The reality is that some people’s lives have been transformed forever by this oil refinery site. We need to imagine how we can continue to transform people’s lives in a positive way.”