I was one of those people, tuning in via Facebook Live for what would be my first encounter with the South Philly-centered organization. I live less than a mile away from the Grays Ferry neighborhood where the organization focuses its Right to Breathe campaign, and the site of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery which has been their main adversary these past five years. I live close enough to the refinery to hear it explode, hurling literal tons of hydrofluoric acid and shrapnel into the air in June 2019. The refinery burned for a day; incredibly, no one was killed. In the aftermath, I followed along as PES closed the refinery and declared bankruptcy that same June; I frantically googled the source of the gas odor that permeated Center City in March 2020, which was attributed to a cleaning agent at the shuttered refinery two miles away. I knew that the refinery site had recently been sold to Hilco Redevelopment Partners prior to this teach-in, just over a year to the day since the explosion. Yet I had not heard of Philly Thrive, did not know that the group had campaigned to close the refinery since 2015, and was unaware of their ongoing efforts to give the southwest Philadelphia neighborhood a voice in plans for the contaminated refinery site until the New York Times covered their story in July 2020.
The teach-in on Facebook Live took place in the third hottest summer on record in Philadelphia, when high temperatures exacerbate the negative health impacts of surface-level atmospheric pollutants and heavy rains cause polluted groundwater to spill into rivers and streams. Like the respiratory virus that compels us all to keep our distance, high summer makes it hard to breathe. As we waited for the event to begin, I wondered how many others were new to the group. The teach-in provided an opportunity for Philly Thrive to celebrate their successful campaign to close the refinery and to open their proposed next steps to public comment; perhaps it was also an opportunity for long-time South Philly residents like myself to understand what our near neighbors have known for years: in the words of Linda Villarosa for the Times, “Black communities like Grays Ferry shoulder a disproportionate burden of the nation’s pollution.” The June 2019 explosion was not just a disaster; it was also a signal flare.
For a few moments, though, speakers from the community were waiting for their co-presenters and virtual audience to gather, and sharing a moment of camaraderie as the Likes drifted upward. “We always forget the waiting music,” commented Philly Thrive co-founder Alexa Ross, who was wearing her curly hair piled up on top of her head. Aikens began to sing softly. “This could be its own karaoke session,” joked Edith Tovar, a Chicago activist with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), who was dropping in from Chicago to share her community’s experiences. They ask each other if they are ready to begin. Then they begin.
The Right to Breathe
The 2019 explosion at the PES refinery was not the first time the industrial plant was responsible for releasing harmful emissions into the air and water in Grays Ferry. (It was not even the refinery’s first explosion.) In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency found that the refinery produced a significant percentage of the toxic air emissions in Philadelphia; from 2014 to 2019, the governing company Philadelphia Energy Solutions was fined nearly $650,000 for violating air, water and waste-disposal rules (New York Times). Analysis from sources including the EPA and University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy found that the soil and groundwater at the PES site were contaminated with hazardous substances including hydrogen cyanide and toluene; the refinery itself emitted the cancer-causing chemical benzene into the air at 21 times the federal limit prior to the June 2019 explosion (New York Times). According to the National Cancer Institute, Philadelphians get cancer at a significantly higher rate than the national average, or even the state average (New York Times).
Grays Ferry residents have been saying for years that the refinery is linked to respiratory ailments or worse; Philly Thrive is a relative newcomer on this scene. Founded in 2015, the environmental justice group Philly Thrive surveyed residents and found that “of the 314 respondents, more than a third had asthma at some point in their lives, and more than half had asthma, heart disease, cancer, a respiratory condition, or some combination” (Green Philly). (For comparison, the national average for asthma in adults is 7.7%.) The organization’s first campaign, The Right to Breathe, was intended to address the disproportionate rates of respiratory illnesses among residents who lived near the refinery.
“I was nonchalant about the refinery,” said Kilynn Johnson, a Grays Ferry resident and cancer survivor. “But then Alexa [Ross] was mentioning things like asthma. And I’m like, ‘Check.’ And cancer, and I’m like, ‘Check.’ That made me more aware of how the refinery is making our people not just sick—but killing our communities all over a dollar” (New York Times).
In August 2020, preparing to meet with representatives of Hilco Redevelopment Partners to facilitate a relationship between the development company and the community, Ross assured the teach-in audience that the Right to Breathe remains at the forefront of their vision for the old refinery site, along with a desire to see opportunities for economic growth. “We want to guarantee that the future of the land will reverse the 150 years of environmental racism and really stand to benefit surrounding neighborhoods first and foremost,” said Ross.
“I just want to see a better relationship with Hilco than we had with Sunoco,” said Jeanette Miller, referring to the company who owned the refinery prior to Philadelphia Energy Solutions. An older Grays Ferry resident and teach-in presenter who both Aikens and Ross call “Miss Jeanette,” Miller did not hide her anger at the negligence that put her community in danger. “We want to make sure this never happens again,” she said.
Environmental racism on the ground
That the historically Black neighborhood of Grays Ferry experiences higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other ailments is just one example of environmental racism in action. Due to decades of discriminatory housing policies such as redlining, predatory lending, and lack of transparency, neighborhoods with a majority nonwhite population are more vulnerable to negative environmental impacts–industrial pollution, yes, but also rising sea level in coastal zones, wildfires in arid zones, and other extreme weather events which will only become more dangerous as the average global temperature rises.
At the same time, climate activism has frequently been criticized for being overwhelmingly white. The New York Times cites a survey of more than 2,000 environmental nonprofits, finding that white people make up 85% of their staffs and 80% of their boards. Lack of diversity is a self-perpetuating circle; if environmental racism hasn’t been centered in climate activism so far, it may be due to the homogeneity of nonprofit leadership. As Justin Worland notes for Time Magazine, it’s not that there wasn’t evidence of environmental racism before; he points to a 1987 report titled “Toxic Wastes and Race” which demonstrated that race was the single greatest determining factor of whether an individual lived near a hazardous-waste facility. Worland sees a trend toward inclusivity in the movement; it’s a savvy move, he suggests, when it’s becoming more and more critical to get popular support behind complex climate issues. “With partisanship at record levels and Republicans still skeptical of climate rules, environmental activists have realized they need a big coalition to pass legislation, and that means getting the enthusiastic backing of people of color,” writes Worland. “To do that, they are not only talking about the environmental hazards faced by people of color but also putting their concerns at the core of their campaigns” (Worland, Time).
Others are not so sure. Take Edith Tovar, presenting at the August 2020 teach-in with her experience on the ground in Chicago, where Hilco Redevelopment Partners bought and redeveloped the Crawford coal plant in the Little Village neighborhood. Tovar described the LIttle Village community as a population-dense, low-income community, mostly Latin American, with residential homes and lots of mom-and-pop shops in 50% of the neighborhood. The other 50% is zoned for industrial sites, like the Crawford plant.
Aware of the harmful emissions released by the plant, LVEJO had campaigned for ten years to persuade the city of Chicago to shut down Crawford. “Many industries thought that we were crazy for wanting to shut down something that supposedly brought jobs,” she explained. “But there were limited jobs, and we know they weren’t the jobs that residents wanted, because it was harmful for their health and also harmful for the environment.”
When their campaign to close the plant finally came to fruition, LVEJO mediated between Little Village residents and city officials for three years to define the community’s goals and demands for the site. “Those goals and demands unfortunately were not achieved,” commented Tovar. The coal plant was sold to Hilco, a company LVEJO had no prior knowledge of. The community organization attempted to establish a relationship with the redevelopment company in order to voiced their concerns and priorities, but encountered little communication and transparency from the global company. Hilco began demolition of the coal plant in 2020.
In April 2020, the planned implosion of a smokestack went awry. The imploded smokestack blanketed Little Village in coal dust; the impact of the implosion rattled homes and disturbed their outdated lead pipes. For time, the air was unbreathable; the water, undrinkable. “I was really upset that a company could do this to people who live in this community all of these years,” said Miller. “They deserve better than that.”
According to Tovar, the Chicago health department was unprepared for the effects of the smokestack implosion, from soil contamination to the pipe damage to the death of a worker onsite. The city is suing; as reported by a Chicago-area online newspaper, the lawsuit following the implosion in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood is “not the first time Hilco and its contractor have faced allegations of environmental violations;” the company also owes fines for a similar demolition project in Maryland (Block Club Chicago).
This may have been news to Philly Thrive, although they had researched the company prior to its purchase of the South Philadelphia refinery. “It’s good that Hilco got the contract; we fought for that,” Aikens had commented in June 2020. “We went all the way to New York to the contract negotiations to make sure Hilco got this contract because they promised they wouldn’t use it as a refinery” (quoted in Van Arsdale, Green Philly).
But Philly Thrive is not a well-funded nonprofit organization with a homogenous board and a built-in media platform; they are an intergenerational, inclusive group that makes the most of what resources they have. Their course correction is clear: Research. Talk to the neighbors to collectively develop the next steps. Build connections with activists like Tovar, who can share knowledge from her organization’s environmental campaigns.
“Hold your city accountable,” advises Tovar. “Starting from the sale of the property to the tax breaks they receive. Literally follow the money.”
Miller has a word of advice for Hilco, and any other corporation that wants to buy polluted land cheaply. “Don’t come in here and destroy the people of this community just for a profit,” she warns. “We’re going to be watching.”
Peña, Mauricio and Chase, Brett. “Attorney General Sues Hilco After Botched Little Village Smokestack Explosion.” Block Club Chicago. May 5, 2020.
“Teach-in: Lessons from Hilco in Chicago.” Facebook Live event. August 19.
Van Arsdale, Greyson. “One Year Later: Questions, Health Repercussions & Environmental Racism Linger from Oil Refinery Explosion.” Green Philly. June 29, 2020.
Villarosa, Linda. “Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back.” July 28, 2020.
Worland, Justin. “Why the Larger Climate Movement Is Finally Embracing the Fight Against Environmental Racism.” Time. July 9, 2020.