Leaders React in Shock to Refinery Closure

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THE P.E.S. FIRE put the fate of South Philadelphia’s iconic refinery in doubt.

First came the physical crisis: the explosion and fire that devastated Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ iconic refinery at the mouth of the Schuylkill River. It was followed last week by an economic shock: the company’s announcement that it would close permanently within the next month.

Now comes the political shock, as public officials scramble to mitigate the loss of thousands of direct and indirect jobs while seeking another future for the site.

It’s not hopeless. The property is well located, with multimodal access and a plant geared to energy infrastructure – and while individual energy industries have their ups and downs, there will always be a demand for processing, storing and shipping energy.

But marketing and retooling giant facilities like this involves massive amounts of money and expertise as well as years of time. Both short-run and longterm strategies must be brought into play.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s team has swung into action. The mayor said, “I’m extremely disappointed for the more than 1,000 workers who will be immediately impacted by this closure, as well as other businesses that are dependent on the refinery operations.

“We will immediately convene a group of City and quasi-governmental organizations to discuss the economic and employment impacts, and what the City is able to do in response. We are also retooling the plans of the working group led by the City’s managing director and fire commissioner to focus efforts on determining the future of the refinery, assisting PES to transition the site safely, communicating with local residents and supporting the employees impacted by PES’ decision.”

Gov. Tom Wolf described his reactions: “PES employees are skilled and hardworking people who helped to prevent the fire from doing more damage. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by a company that has profited from their labor. I expect the company to take care of these workers first before prioritizing their own further profits.

“I am currently working with the Department of Community & Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin and the Governor’s Action Team, and the Department of Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak on a plan to address potential negative economic impacts for the Philadelphia region and to provide assistance to the workers affected by this announcement.

First came the physical crisis: the explosion and fire that devastated Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ iconic refinery at the mouth of the Schuylkill River. It was followed last week by an economic shock: the company’s announcement that it would close permanently within the next month.

Now comes the political shock, as public officials scramble to mitigate the loss of thousands of direct and indirect jobs while seeking another future for the site.

It’s not hopeless. The property is well located, with multimodal access and a plant geared to energy infrastructure – and while individual energy industries have their ups and downs, there will always be a demand for processing, storing and shipping energy.

But marketing and retooling giant facilities like this involves massive amounts of money and expertise as well as years of time. Both short-run and longterm strategies must be brought into play.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s team has swung into action. The mayor said, “I’m extremely disappointed for the more than 1,000 workers who will be immediately impacted by this closure, as well as other businesses that are dependent on the refinery operations.

“We will immediately convene a group of City and quasi-governmental organizations to discuss the economic and employment impacts, and what the City is able to do in response. We are also retooling the plans of the working group led by the City’s managing director and fire commissioner to focus efforts on determining the future of the refinery, assisting PES to transition the site safely, communicating with local residents and supporting the employees impacted by PES’ decision.”

Gov. Tom Wolf described his reactions: “PES employees are skilled and hardworking people who helped to prevent the fire from doing more damage. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by a company that has profited from their labor. I expect the company to take care of these workers first before prioritizing their own further profits.

“I am currently working with the Department of Community & Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin and the Governor’s Action Team, and the Department of Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak on a plan to address potential negative economic impacts for the Philadelphia region and to provide assistance to the workers affected by this announcement.

“Labor & Industry’s Rapid Response Coordination Services will immediately initiate outreach to offer the potentially affected workers with the information and services they need to successfully return to the workforce. The Rapid Response unit provides workers who are facing a layoff with information on retraining, continuing education, job-seeking, health insurance and unemployment benefits.

“I am offering the full expertise of the Department of Environment Protection to ensure the company decommissions the plant responsibly and no corners are cut on mitigating environmental damage. Further, there must be a complete investigation of recent fires and the explosion. If any action or failure by the company led to these incidents, there must be accountability.”

Congressman Dwight Evans (D-Phila.) said, “The owners of the refinery must not be let off the hook during or after a closure. The refinery workers and the neighbors and taxpayers in Philadelphia should not have to bear the burden for cleanup after the fire or for any remediation that may have to be done if and when the facility closes.”

State legislators representing South Philadelphia, including State Rep. Jordan Harris, House Democratic whip; State Sen. Anthony Williams, Senate Democratic whip; State Rep. Maria Donatucci; State Sen. Larry Farnese, Senate Democratic secretary; and State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, said the disaster “sent a shockwave, both literally and figuratively, through our community. The announcement of the closure of the refinery is another blow to the thousands of workers who earn a living and support their family through their hard work in South Philadelphia.

“We thoroughly expect PES to comply with the federal WARN Act to help protect the employees who will be losing their job.

“PES, the largest refinery on the East Coast, has been a staple in South Philadelphia for decades. Quality union jobs have sustained families over generations and the loss of these jobs, and the connected economic impact will not be easy on our city and our region. However, it is our hope that given the plans to sell the complex, new industry can move in.”

Williams added a cautionary note on PES’s handling of the crisis.

“The decision to close the refinery follows troubling accounts of the June 21, 2019 explosion at the refinery that resulted in a fire. Concerns have also been raised regarding the environmental impact of the refinery.,” the senator noted.

“While it is important to address the safety and environmental concerns connected to the refinery’s operations, closing the refinery altogether is a poor choice of action,” Williams said. “There must be a way to improve safety and environmental impacts while also supporting the skilled workers who helped to contain the June 2019 fire.”

A hearing regarding the safety, environmental, and refinery closure concerns is being scheduled for late July. The senator hopes that the hearing will result in a plan that both supports refinery workers and addresses the concerns PES has cited as reasons to close the South Philadelphia facility.

“I am asking PES to come to the table with solutions on how to better the refinery, not give up and turn their backs on their employees,” Williams said.

Fiedler weighed in: “We need to make sure these refinery workers are made whole. We need to hold the corporations that operate in our state accountable for their duty to both the workers, whose labor they profit from, and the land that’s been polluted for decades. Additionally, we need to make sure the community gets a responsible neighbor that doesn’t endanger their health and safety. We can no longer allow big corporations to divide working people, while also presenting us with false and dangerous ultimatums, such as putting food on the table or polluting the air our children breathe.

“We need to demand better, together, as strong supporters of unions, of environmental justice and as leaders who are committed to the future. This includes a determination to bring more jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency to Philadelphia and the entire commonwealth. We can and must do all these things!”

Some City Councilmembers were even more caustic. Helen Gym (at Large) called the affair “a terrifying reminder of what’s at stake when we put profits over people. For years, the gross incompetence of the Carlyle Group and PES’ other owners has racked up environmental violation after environmental violation and skipped out on paying taxes. Now that investors have lined their pockets, they’ll walk away from the 1,000 workers who’ve shown up faithfully every day, leaving us with a devastated and contaminated site.”

Derek S. Green (at Large) chimed in: “The City must be proactive in developing and implementing a citywide transition from fossil fuels that equitably balances the interests of residents, workers, and future generations.

“The City should not merely react to private decisions being made based on profit motive, but proactively affirm the public’s right to clean air and protected neighborhoods and for workers to be treated as essential. As a member of this Council and as Chair of the Gas Commission, I remain committed to transitioning our publicly owned Philadelphia Gas Works along that more-responsible path.”

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