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Massive Fire at South Philadelphia Oil Refinery Injures Five
"All of a sudden — boom — the ground shook. The flame went up. Parts were falling out of the sky," Daryl Lee, who was on his paper route when the explosion ignited around 4 a.m., told 6 ABC Action News. "Like the sun landed on the ground, that's how bright it was. Then as it fell back down, you saw what looked like metal coming down. Like glitter, sparkles, raining down. That's when I realized this thing blew up."
REFINERY BLAST: Drone video taken by an Action News viewer shows the explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery complex early Friday morning. https://t.co/vVv7MNXFdP pic.twitter.com/dYoW4gAJ41— Action News on 6abc (@6abc) June 21, 2019
The fire started in a tank containing butane and propane at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in South Philadelphia, which is the 10th largest refinery in the nation and the largest on the East Coast, the company claims. Five workers were treated for minor injuries following the blaze, which was extinguished Saturday afternoon. At one point, more than 120 firefighters battled the flames with more than 50 pieces of equipment, 6 ABC Action News reported.
Smoke from the fire raised concerns about air pollution: the refinery is the No. 1 source of particulate matter in the Philadelphia area on a good day, according to NBC 10. However, the Philadelphia Department of Health measured the air quality and concluded that there were "no findings that would point to any immediate danger in the surrounding community at this time."
The city said it would continue to monitor air quality in a statement Sunday. The cause of the fire will be investigated starting Monday by agencies including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the Philadelphia Fire Department's Fire Marshal's Office.
Friday's fire comes after a smaller blaze June 10, and the two fires have prompted renewed protests from community members and environmentalists who have long been concerned about the plant's impact on its neighbors.
- That Mayor Jim Kenney and the City Council fund a study on turning the refinery into public land for community-owned energy projects
- That the Air Management Services and Environmental Protection Agency take stronger action, including imposing fines that would fund community projects and medical bills
- That the two agencies not renew the refinery's Title V air permit in July
- That a public meeting is coordinated with all agencies to report to the community on the dangers posed by the refinery and the enforcement actions being taken
Philadelphians from low-income communities of color have been holding @PhilaEnergySol + @JimFKenney accountable to the toxic impacts that the largest oil refinery on the East Coast has had on our lives.— Philly Thrive (@PhillyThrive) June 21, 2019
We can't afford a dangerous fossil fuel economy. We need a #GreenNewDeal. pic.twitter.com/VQTbxbdI9s
Philly Thrive member Sylvia Bennet has lived with her two daughters near the refinery for their entire lives, and her daughters both have cancer.
"We're breathing bad air. All we ask for is that they clean up the air, take this fossil fuel away," Bennett told 6 ABC Action News.
However, the PES refinery, which filed for bankruptcy last year, could shutter without activist pressure. A University of Pennsylvania report said it could close within five years due to financial difficulties, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.Friday's fire only adds to PES' financial woes. An alkylation unit involved in the fire was entirely destroyed, Reuters reported. It could take several years to rebuild. Damage to the unit and the refinery overall could mean one of the refinery's two sections would remain shut for an extended period, and then would operate at reduced rates while the unit is replaced.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Will Sarni
It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.
The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future
We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.
"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.
One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.
Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.
Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.
These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.
We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).
We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.
We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.
Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.
Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
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