The South Philadelphia oil refinery explosion in 2019 influenced a recent assembly hosted by the Upper School environmental clubs.
When a series of explosions occurred at the South Philadelphia oil refinery in June 2019, questions emerged about residents’ safety in the surrounding neighborhoods. In October of that year, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the blast released 5,239 pounds of the deadly chemical toxic hydrofluoric acid. During the explosion, a shelter-in-place order was issued for residents near the refinery, but no evacuation was ordered.
This harrowing event, which was studied during a J-Term course in 2020 and included a visit to the refinery, influenced a recent Upper School assembly hosted by the environmental clubs. The assembly was held during environmental week, which focused on the clubs’ agendas and sustainable efforts.
GFS Environmental Action Club, led by GFS seniors Norah Lee ’22 and Anna Macdonald ’22, hopes to improve the school’s environmental footprint by reducing paper usage on campus, providing resources to students and faculty, and beginning a school-wide composting program.
During the assembly, Bethany Wiggin, Founding Director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, Grays Ferry residents Charles and Tammy Reeves, and participants in Futures Beyond Refining, an ongoing collaborative exploring the historical relationship between the refinery and its surrounding neighborhoods, spoke to students about their ongoing work and goals for the new refinery site. It was sold to Hilco Redevelopment Partners in early 2020, which plans to turn the industrial site into a major economic hub.
“Nobody was paying attention until this catastrophic explosion, but this was hardly the first one,” remarked Tammy Reeves, environmental activist and a long-time resident of the Grays Ferry neighborhood. "I grew up six blocks from the refinery. You would see all of this fire coming up out of the tanks, but we didn't know what it was or that it was harmful. We know so many neighborhood friends and relatives who have died of cancer or who have asthma, or other medical problems."
The Reeves talked to the group about their experiences living next to the refinery, the harms caused by chemicals, and their wishes for the future of the former site, including a memorial for friends and neighbors who died as a result of oil refinery pollution.