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Environmentalist groups stop construction of oil export terminal in Philadelphia, 2016
Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) is a private oil and gas manufacturer that owns the largest oil unloading and refining facility on the East Coast of the United States. Labelled by the Environmental Protection Agency as a high priority violator since April 2012, the PES has long been criticized by environmentalist groups for releasing air and water pollutants and failing to comply with the Clean Air Act.
In January 2016, concerned community members from the waterfront area in Philadelphia, along with environmentalist coalition group Green Justice Philly, learned of a proposal by PES to build an oil import/export facility on a 195-acre plot of land in the Southport area of the Navy Yard that was being leased by the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA). The PES was one of the six bidders that proposed to commercialize the empty land.
During a PRPA public information session in March of the same year, Green Justice Philly and community leaders voiced their concerns over the PES proposal. Members of the activist group highlighted the poor environmental track record of the PES’s refinery in South Philadelphia and its damage to residents’ health, while union leaders questioned the number of new jobs the proposal would create. Outside of the venue, protesters rallied against the expansion of the fossil fuel company, holding up signs such as “No more poison in Phila!” In response, the PRPA expressed its willingness to work with the community and hold companies “accountable for their environmental actions.”
On 7 May, Green Justice Philly and members of the public staged a demonstration in front of the PES’s refinery in South Philadelphia. Over 300 protesters held up 100 6-foot tall sunflower cutouts and marched with banners and signs marked “Right to Breathe.” Members of the nearby community spoke about how the poor air quality caused chronic health problems for the residents. The crowd also staged a sit-in, blocked a truck entrance, and covered the gates with sunflowers as a symbol of hope for a better and cleaner future.
Police officers were present during the protest, but they did not make any arrests. The police department released a statement later that day, confirming that the protesters demonstrated peacefully and caused no problems.
Following the protest on 7 May, Green Justice Philly invited the PRPA to a town hall meeting on 19 May. During this public session, the environmentalists submitted a letter to Chairman Gerard Sweeney and the members of the Board of the Port Authority, demanding an immediate disqualification of the PES as a proposer for Southport commercialization. The letter denounced the oil company as a “habitual environmental scofflaw” that presented a “persistent and clear danger” to the citizens and city of Philadelphia.
On 26 June, three dozen community members and environmentalists from Green Justice Philly gathered at the Port Authority building and staged a peaceful takeover of the Board meeting. Maxine McCleary, a longtime resident near the PES refinery, spoke out against the fossil fuel expansion plan. In an emotional speech, she testified for the health problems that the refinery had caused; she said that four of her nine siblings died from respiratory cancer while her 10-year-old son suffered asthma since he was born. Other protesters also reiterated the clear message that the city should not “have to sacrifice health for jobs,” citing several times when air quality alerts were issued consecutively. In response, Chairman Sweeney of the Port Authority restated the Board’s commitment to consider “community input” in the review process.
The effort against PES’s proposal of building an oil terminal in Southport continued on 26 July when ACTION United (a member of Green Justice Philly) organized a rally outside of the PES refinery in South Philadelphia Around 100 community activists were joined by members of Philly Thrive, an organization that opposes the creation of an “energy hub” in Philadelphia. Carrying yellow flags and banging drums, the protesters fixed sunflowers to the facility’s fence. They also briefly occupied the road and the refinery’s driveway, blocking tanker drivers from going in and out. This action angered several drivers and caused a traffic jam on the busy road. Though a confrontation occurred between some of the protesters and drivers, no one was hurt or arrested. Nearby police officers stood by and observed.
Another demonstration took place on 10 November, following a letter from the Philadelphia Democratic Delegation to the state assembly in October that urged the policymakers to discontinue any fossil-fuel expansion project. Environmentalist groups Food & Water Watch and Philly Thrive organized a picket in front of the Port Authority office with over 20 people attending the action. The protesters attempted to enter the building to deliver an over-sized, handwritten Post-It note to Chairman Sweeney, but were blocked by Don Brennan, the Director of Governmental and Public Affairs, due to “security concerns.” Brennan later delivered the note, which included messages such as “The climate can’t tolerate any more fossil fuels,” to Sweeney and said that the protesters’ perspective would be taken into account.
On 22 November, just weeks before the PRPA’s decision on choosing a company to develop the waterfront land, Green Justice Philly organized a second takeover of the PRPA Board meeting and persuade the authority to choose public health and good employment opportunities over profits that fossil fuel industry expansion would bring. This was the final effort by the environmentalist coalition to stop the PES from developing an oil terminal in Southport.
On the same day, Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf announced a $292-million-dollar investment plan for the Port of Philadelphia that included a traditional marine terminal with ship berths to handle containers and cargoes as well as to store imported automobiles. The plan aimed to double the capacity and maintain the competitiveness of the port while benefiting the automobile business in Southport and creating thousands of jobs. With this “non-energy use” development plan announced, the Port Authority cancelled its process to commercialize the land, citing that the proposals by private companies lacked “a comprehensive plan to grow the entire port.” PES subsequently dropped its proposal.