Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex

Exhaust billows from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Philadelphia last year.

— AP Photo/Matt Rourke

As South Philadelphia residents know all too well, the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery loomed for decades as the largest single source of pollution in our city. As has been well documented, the former refinery created immense health and safety issues for this city’s minority population.

Philadelphia, which is about 44% African American, carried an environmental burden that today sees the city having the highest cancer rate of any city in the U.S. and an asthma hospitalization rate three times the statewide average. This is the definition of climate injustice, a situation that can be reversed by the transformation of this location from what had been the city’s largest polluter to a sustainable 21st-century logistics hub.

At the same time, the refinery served as a source of employment for 1,000 of our city’s residents. Its closure following the 2019 explosion marked the end of 150 years of environmental damage in South Philadelphia caused by oil refining activities, but it also meant the end of a paycheck for all but a few union workers on-site. While active pollution has stopped, so has the economic benefit.

Philadelphia needs a way to bring back the jobs without the pollution and an avenue to employ minority contractors. Used for refining oil for over 150 years, in bankruptcy and the relic of a bygone era of industry, the PES site struggled to attract investors or buyers and threatened to remain a blight on South Philadelphia.

Fortunately, the property was designated a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) in 2014, a tool designed to encourage private sector money for the redevelopment of some of the region’s toughest, most polluted and most undesirable properties.

Typically, KOZs are granted to abandoned, unused or underutilized land and buildings that the state believes could benefit the local community and region through economic revitalization, if developed. Importantly, KOZs require a partnership, where private investment must benefit the community through job creation and other community benefits. Done right, KOZs are a win-win for businesses and the community.

PES fits the bill. It is a much-polluted brownfield site whose remediation will take time, investment, expertise and commitment. Its cleanup and redevelopment presents enormous challenges only possible through the combined efforts and support of state and city leaders and private industry.

All Philadelphians should want to ensure the heavily polluted property is cleaned up to the highest standards possible and put to good use. The new owners of the site, Hilco Redevelopment Partners (HRP), saw the potential of this corner of Philadelphia. That’s their business — transformation. They clean up, plan and modernize; but, ultimately, they transform.

Their plan for PES is a bold one. According to the latest announced plans, they intend to clean up and redevelop the site into a multi-million-dollar distribution and commercial hub with the potential to create nearly 20,000 permanent jobs, generating an annual economic impact of $3 billion for our city.

HRP has an earnest desire to create economic opportunity for the minority community and has shared their plans for us to serve as a liaison between them and the city’s pool of quality minority contractors. The KOZ program is a linchpin in this plan. The alternative? A site that continues to operate as a refinery with lasting negative impacts on our community.

The African American Chamber of Commerce believes that KOZs are an investment in the future and in Philadelphia. We know they work. Philadelphia’s Navy Yard is just one example where the utilization of KOZs created a partnership between our city and the private sector that reinvigorated a previously blighted area and breathed new life into our city.

That same potential lies at the former PES site, and that’s why KOZs deserve our city leaders’ careful consideration and continued support. Without them, we risk missing opportunities — like the chance to clean up and redevelop the PES site so it is never again a refinery — to improve our environment and create jobs and local economic opportunities within our community.

Steven Scott-Bradley is the chairman of the African American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ and DE.

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