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Foreword from Executive Directors Minott and Steinberg

View of the Refinery Site with Center City in the background. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes.

From Joseph Minott, Executive Director and Chief Counsel of the Clean Air Council and Harris Steinberg, Executive Director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University 

Cities are a complex series of systems that evolve at a varying pace over time.

Such is the case with the Lower Schuylkill and the roughly 1,400-acre site formerly used by Philadelphia Energy Solutions for its oil refinery. The refinery started as the Atlantic Petroleum Storage Company in 1866 - only seven years after oil was discovered in Titusville, PA– and grew to become the largest oil refinery on the East Coast of the United States before being shuttered by a fire and explosion in the summer of 2019.

In the intervening years, the site helped fuel the rise of Philadelphia as an industrial giant, frequently earning the moniker of “Workshop of the World before the city’s eventual de-industrialization and decline in the 1950s and 60s. The ascent of the environmental movement in these subsequent decades—activated by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962—began to make us crucially aware as a nation of the environmental and social costs of unregulated industry operating in close proximity to residential neighborhoods. Fast forward to today, where the continued work of local environmental advocates, in addition to the fire and explosion, have culminated in a call for a cleaner future use of the site that would advance environmental justice for  South and Southwest Philadelphia residents living in close proximity to the former PES site.

The bankruptcy of Philadelphia Energy Solutions and the closure of its refinery has given Philadelphia residents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the future of this critically important site within the borders of the City of Philadelphia. Occupying an area larger than Center City Philadelphia and situated between the rich job hubs of Center City, University City, the Navy Yard, and the airport, the site is heavily polluted and will take significant effort, resources, and time to repurpose it for safer uses in the future.

The closing of the refinery shined a light on the persistent public health impacts of the facility on the residents of the fence-line communities along its perimeter, as well as the significance of the loss of such a high number of highly skilled refinery jobs.  Indeed, the City of Philadelphia’s Refinery Advisory Panel, convened in the aftermath of the 2019 fire and explosion, made clear that future uses for the site must “put the public’s safety as a top priority” while “providing significant long-term economic benefit to Philadelphia and it’s residents.”

To that end, the Clean Air Council, in partnership with the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, organized a community visioning process to begin to imagine the future of the PES site.  With a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the team worked with a wide number of constituents to develop initial images and diagrams of a physically connected landscape that could contribute to the social, environmental, and economic health of Philadelphia and the region.

This report details our process and our findings.  It is presented as an overture to a much-needed broader and longer public conversation about the future of the site as we grapple with climate change, sea level rise, and the impact of increased storm surge in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

We are grateful to the William Penn Foundation for its support to the staffs of the Clean Air Council and the Lindy Institute, and to the residents, union members, public officials, advisory panel members, and design professionals who graciously gave their time and intellect to inform this work.