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As DNC Delegates Gather in the ‘Birthplace of Democracy’, Local Communities Fight for their Right to Breathe

(Photo: ©Rachel Wariner/Courtesy of Philly Thrive)

From July 25th-29th 2016, South Philadelphia will be home to the Democratic National Convention. The DNC’s location this year will no doubt be repeatedly referenced by delegates and reporters from across the nation and beyond, with much to be made of the city’s prominent role in America’s early struggle for democracy and freedom. What is unlikely to be discussed at the convention - or given coverage by either national or international media - is the reality of everyday life for Philadelphians, and the rights and freedoms that we are still fighting for.

The host stadium for the DNC will be the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly, well known for being home to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Philadelphia 76ers. What many visitors to the stadium won’t realize is that it sits right on the doorstep of an environmental justice crisis: Less than two miles from where DNC delegates will gather next week lies the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refining complex - the largest refining complex on the East Coast - which has been poisoning Philadelphia communities for decades and contributing to some of the highest rates of respiratory illness and asthma in the nation. Closely tied to the growth of the American oil industry in the 19th century, PES states in its literature that the refining complex has been ‘part of the neighborhood’ in South Philadelphia for almost 150 years. What it doesn’t account for is its destructive impact on that neighborhood over generations, and how its planned expansion will further entrench existing health and social inequalities across the city.

Let’s start with the data: PES is indisputedly the dirtiest polluter in a city that regularly receives ‘F’ ratings from the American Lung Association for its air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that the refining complex is responsible for 72% of toxic emissions in Philadelphia, making it the biggest contributor to our city having some of the worst air quality in America. Unbelievably, PES’ working practices at the refinery complex aren’t legal: they regularly violate Federal Clean Air and Clean Water Act regulations. But PES’ business model accounts for the relatively small violation fines they have to pay to the EPA on an annual basis. Each year, PES breaks the law, pays a small fine, makes millions in profits, and is never held to account for its impact on the health and safety of Philadelphians.

Unquestionably linked to Philadelphia’s poor air quality is the reality that one in four children in the city now suffer from asthma - almost three times the national average - with children in poor communities and communities of color living in the neighborhoods closest to the refinery being among the most harshly affected. And so this becomes more than an environmental problem, but a social justice crisis as well: the destructive effects of the oil and gas industry in the city - as is the case in communities across the world - are not distributed equally.

Toxic emissions from PES, and their associated health and social impacts, disproportionately affect low-income people of color who have been living in ‘fenceline’ communities for generations. Local residents are subjected not only to staggering rates of health conditions that incur unaffordable medical bills, but also to the fear of frequent fires and toxic leaks at the refinery and foul smells across their neighborhoods that go unacknowledged by the city or by PES.

Low income communities are also those located closest to the ‘blast zone’ of the fleet of unsafe oil trains that run through the city daily from Downtown to South Philly, carrying Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to the PES refinery. These trains are not built for this purpose, and recent fires and explosions on similar oil trains in Quebec and West Virginia should be seen as a warning to Philadelphia city officials: in the event of a similar explosion here, countless people could be harmed, and lasting damage would be done to our environment.


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Many Southwest Philadelphians struggle to breathe, and still more live in fear of the air that they are breathing. Black lives matter, but not, it seems, to the fossil fuel industry, or the city that supports it. And far from taking accountability for his company’s reckless practices, Phil Rinaldi, CEO of PES, is now leading the fight to further expand the oil and gas industry in Philadelphia, to create an ‘energy hub’ that is being described as ‘Houston on the Delaware’. In January, PES submitted a proposal to expand their refinery into Southport - the most recent manifestation of what this energy hub would look like. The project is now on the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority’s short list, and a decision will be made on the project this October. It is undoubtedly low-income people and people of color who will be most impacted by the proposed fossil fuel expansion.

As Democratic delegates gather in Philadelphia this week, and as racial and class inequalities once again come to the fore, Philadelphians from across the city are mobilising to fight back against these injustices. Local grassroots movement Philly Thrive is uniting Philadelphians to take action for clean air, climate justice and the right to breathe, with the aim of defending our communities and our future against the largest fossil fuel refinery on the East Coast.

Philly Thrive is a volunteer movement made up of activists and supporters of all backgrounds, races, classes, religions, ages, genders and sexual orientations from across Philadelphia, with a different vision for our city and our country than the one being perpetuated by Rinaldi and his peers. In 2016, when climate scientists are in consensus on the devastating impact of the fossil fuel industry on our people and our planet, it doesn’t make sense for Philadelphia, or for the Democratic Party, to be considering investment in oil and gas infrastructure as a viable option for American cities. In the birthplace of democracy, we should all be fighting for each other’s right to breathe.

On Tuesday July 26th, Philly Thrive will join forces with Action United, LeftRoots and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance to give a ‘Toxic Tour’ of the PES Refinery to international activists traveling to Philly for the DNC, and are inviting Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to participate. The action will demonstrate solidarity with frontline communities across the globe, and a determination to fight against the fossil fuel industry at home. This fight is only just beginning, and will not stop until a just transition to green jobs, clean energy and healthy communities is achieved.

Whether delegates at the DNC in South Philadelphia choose to take progressive steps on climate change and environmental justice remains to be seen. In the meantime, grassroots activists are wasting no time in rallying in our city and in communities across the world to seek an end to the extractive economy and climate injustice, and to finally secure our right to breathe.

Emma Pike

Emma Pike is a British immigrant, writer, and climate justice campaigner based in South Philadelphia. She is a member of Philly Thrive, a grassroots movement taking action for clean air, climate justice and the right to breathe. Follow her on Twitter: @emmapike_1

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