Bilal Motley

Bilal Motley worked at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery for 13 years before an explosion and fire closed the plant. — WHYY Photo/Emma Lee

Bilal Motley’s last day at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery was Sept. 22. He worked there for 13 years, going in through the vast Point Breeze facility to get to his job as a wastewater-treatment plant foreman.

His coworkers were his family, Motley says — he spent more time at the refinery than at home.

That’s why last Monday was a hard day, like a coming out. It was the first public screening of “Midnight Oil” — a 48-minute documentary Motley made about the last days of the refinery. And his coworkers were not happy.

“They just found out about the screening tonight and things like that, and they’re calling me traitor and things like that.…I’m like, you guys know me, I’m not a traitor, I can’t tell my story?”

Most of his former coworkers have either rallied to keep the refinery open or kept their thoughts private. Motley wants to speak up. He doesn’t think it would be good for Philadelphia if the complex were reopened as a refinery.

“It’s painful to say this but … I don’t think it should be, I don’t. The community doesn’t want it. We can’t just do everything based on jobs, jobs, jobs. Like, come on, let’s just be forward-thinking,” Motley said.

More than 1,000 people lost their jobs when the refinery stopped operating in June. Philadelphia Energy Solutions filed for bankruptcy in July, a month after an alkylation unit in the Girard Point section of the complex exploded and burst into flames, releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and prompting PES to shut down operations.

The company’s reorganization plan currently contemplates selling the 150-year-old refinery complex and its prime 1,300-acre location in South Philadelphia to a Chicago-based developer that, according to city officials and court documents, wants to permanently shut down the refinery and build warehouses and a logistics center instead.

After months of uncertainty about what the future holds, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Delaware could confirm the extensively criticized Chapter 11 plan as soon as Wednesday. Formal objections to the plan have been filed by the committee of PES’ unsecured creditors and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. And the proposed $240 million deal with Hilco Redevelopment Partners to acquire the site has angered hundreds of former refinery workers and their unions, who have staged public protests since Hilco was named the winner of a January bankruptcy auction though it did not submit the highest bid.

As a supervisor and a trainer, Motley stayed on at the refinery with a caretaker crew until the end of September. Many operators and skilled workers remain unemployed. Some are still waiting to see if the refinery reopens. Others had to take jobs that paid less, such as driving trucks, or move out of state, or adapt to whatever they could get. Some of them moved to comparable jobs.

For Motley, 39, it was a compromise. It took him a couple of months to find a new job working as a maintenance manager at a local university that pays about a third of the roughly $150,000 he was making at the refinery. But at the same time, Motley — who studied screenwriting at the Jacob Krueger Studio in New York in 2017 — has been accomplishing a longtime dream: making a film.

“Midnight Oil” is a personal documentary, shot with his cellphone. In it, Motley (who was working that day) chronicles the early morning fire using news clips and PES security-camera footage, captures reactions from inside the refinery (he and others tried to fight the fire), and news of the shutdown. He also documents how racist statements by some refinery workers affected his time there, and the anger and depression he went through during the closing process. By the end of the film, Motley meets neighbors of the refinery and activists who oppose its reopening and speaks about the ways the complex is polluting Philadelphia.

Motley says the Feb. 3 public screening of the film at the University of Pennsylvania changed his life. He’s received threatening messages from former coworkers, he said, and was ousted from a closed 759-member refinery workers Facebook group.

“For years, I held everything in — for nearly 15 years — trying to be the perfect coworker. I didn’t want to step out of line, trying to be … trying to conform. But I had to tell it,” he said from his new office in Center City. “I had to tell my truth and what I believed.”

‘I won’t blow up here’

Motley was born into a Muslim family in Mississippi and grew up in Chester, Delaware County. His mother passed away when he was 6. In high school, people started calling him “BL,” and Motley said he took it, just to make it easier for people to pronounce. Those two letters, BL, ended up embroidered on his uniform when he started working at the refinery.

“I think ever since then, [I’ve been] just compromising myself. Like the feeling that I have to be perfect, the perfect Black worker. You know what I mean? I didn’t want them to call me ignorant, I didn’t want them to call me the N-word behind my back. Because I know it happens to other people. I just wanted to be perfect,” Motley said.

Many times, he said, that meant not speaking up. Like when a former coworker asked him in a sarcastic way why he wasn’t joining the protests after Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, was shot in Florida. Or when some of his former coworkers referred to community members protesting the refinery using racist words.

“I didn’t want to be the angry Black male there, so I just took it, you know?” he said. “I manufactured likeability there.”

At his new job, Motley said, he can be himself. He gets to see his family way more than when he worked at the refinery. And although the job is as stressful as the one he had with PES, he feels safer now.

“I won’t blow up here. Nothing will blow up here.”

‘Many times we put oil into the river. Many times.’

When he started working at the refinery’s wastewater treatment plant in 2006, it didn’t rain as often and as hard as it rains now, Motley said.

On typical days, pumps would send wastewater from other units in the refinery to the treatment plant, for it to be cleaned before disposal.

“So they’re sending us oil, benzene … all types of nasty stuff. So we’re breathing that stuff in,” he said.

Motley is not aware of any study done by PES on the impact on workers’ health from exposure to toxic pollutants. No one inside the refinery talked about it, he said. But for him, it’s common sense. While working at the refinery, he suffered from constant headaches and difficulty sleeping. Once he ended up in the hospital after feeling like he was going to faint. Some of his friends and mentors at the plant had died prematurely, and he didn’t want that to happen to him.

“I felt like the place was going to kill me,” he said.

About five years ago, he started noticing heavy rains and floods were happening more often. And every time those happened, untreated wastewater was being disposed of into the Schuylkill River.

“There’s been many times we’ve put oil into the river. Many times,” Motley said.

That was not done on purpose, he explained — during periods of heavy rain, the plant didn’t have the capacity to manage the wastewater.

“We had a really bad 2018. It was really bad,” he said. “We sent a lot of bad materials to the river on our Girard Point side.”

Motley said the attitude inside the refinery was that they were somewhat above the law. The Coast Guard patrolled the river every day, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection came when notified, but he said there were no major consequences to putting wastewater into the river, so he didn’t do anything to stop it.

“We’re Big Oil,” he said. “You had a certain arrogance. What are [the authorities] going to do?”

In January, the DEP fined Philadelphia Energy Solutions a total of $136,308 related to multiple violations of the state’s Clean Stream Law — discharges of industrial waste into the Schuylkill River covering seven pollution events, as well as effluent exceedances dating back to 2014.

“We take unpermitted discharges to waters of the commonwealth very seriously,” Virginia Cain, a representative for DEP, said Thursday. “DEP issues discharge permits known as NPDES permits that allow for the discharge of treated industrial wastewater. These permits contain various limitations based on the type of wastewater and the receiving stream and are set in such a way to protect the quality of the water in which the discharge is going to. We issue enforcement actions for effluent violations and pollution incidents impacting our rivers, including those that occur unpermitted or those found to be in violation of permit conditions.”

“DEP also routinely conducts unannounced inspections at the refineries,” Cain said, “including showing up to investigate mysterious river sheens to determine if they are potentially responsible.”

She added that anyone with environmental concerns can make confidential reports to DEP.

Ryan O’Callaghan, president of the United Steelworkers local that represented about 600 refinery workers, strongly disputed Motley’s statements about racism, the neighboring community, and work practices at the refinery. In a phone interview Thursday, he questioned Motley’s integrity and motives in speaking up after 13 years of working at the refinery.

O’Callaghan argued that Motley’s job as a manager was to stop environmental violations from occurring.

“If he was there and saw things that were harmful to the environment, and he never spoke up, that’s on him,” O’Callaghan said. “So far as I’m concerned, the USW fought for safety reps in that refinery, and we got six of them, to make sure that stuff didn’t happen. Our committee is health, safety and environment — that’s what we fought for. And that’s what needs to be fought for in oil refineries. So, we did our part. If he was some guy that just sat back and collected a check, that’s between him and his own conscience.”

O’Callaghan said Motley left the refinery in 2017 and then came back in 2018, “but he says he was afraid to work there?”

He also disputed Motley’s criticism in “Midnight Oil” of the $4.5 million paid in bonuses to PES executives before the company filed for bankruptcy. Motley didn’t get one of those, but as a manager, O’Callaghan said, he received yearly bonuses that went from $10,000 to $20,000.

“He’s one of them! Maybe that’s why he kept his mouth shut when he allegedly saw things going into the waterway and when he’s seen things go into the ground,” O’Callaghan said.

In a statement Thursday, Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Mark Smith challenged Motley’s claims of racism in “Midnight Oil.” He also challenged allegations made by Motley about the job-site and environmental issues.

“We strongly object to the assertions made by this individual because they simply do not accurately reflect what the Company believes to be the actions and attitudes of the well trained and caring people that manage and work in our facility. This individual’s statements also contradict the established policies of the Company. His views, which we strongly disagree with, should not be interpreted as fact or of the way business is conducted by the good and hardworking people that manage and work in the facility,” Smith wrote in the statement.

“The Company values the continuous dialogue and input from our regulators and our Community Advisory Panel. The Company also strives to support a culturally diverse workforce and expects all employees and contractors to treat others (both inside and outside of the facility) with respect,” Smith wrote. “The Company has detailed policies addressing these matters, which require employees to report instances of noncompliance and provides a number of methods of reporting, including on a confidential basis. We are disappointed that this former employee never reported any of these allegations while he was a Company employee.”

‘This place should not be here’

Motley said that, a couple years ago, he wasn’t concerned about the impact the pollution could have on people living near the refinery.

“We don’t know these people in the community. We come into work, and then we go home. Then we go ride our boats down the Shore, we go on vacation, and we don’t … you know what I mean? Why [be] concerned with people you don’t know? There’s no face to it,” he said.

At first, Motley didn’t care about the environment either. But slowly, things started to add up. His mentors dying early, his health issues, increasing heavy rains and pollution being dumped at the river, and watching his daughter grow up in what he was starting to conceive of as a threatened future. Early in 2019, his wife told him they were expecting a second child. Their son was born in October, less than a month after Motley’s last day at the refinery.

And then, while doing research for “Midnight Oil,” Motley started meeting and talking with activists and neighbors of the refinery. He heard them say they had health issues — asthma, cancer. He heard them say members of their families had died. And he realized they looked a lot like him and his family. After seeing them face to face, Motley said, he couldn’t keep ignoring them.

“I realized … my own inaction, and I just, you know, I said: ‘OK, this is enough.’ That’s why I decided to act,” he said.

Since his former refinery coworkers learned about the film, he’s been sad and afraid, Motley said, but he finds strength and comfort when he reminds himself he’s doing this for his kids.

“I figured, what [are] my son and my daughter going to say 50 years from now when they say, `You knew better; you did nothing.’”

Motley’s goal is to build awareness of the environmental impact caused by big industry among lower-income communities and people of color. He said he’s been educating himself on environmental issues, reading books such as “The Uninhabitable Earth,” by David Wallace-Wells, and the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He also has met with affected neighbors in the community and asked their forgiveness.

“It was the kind of moment of reconciliation that we never thought we would have, and we might not have any more than that,” said Alexa Ross, an organizer with the local activist group PhillyThrive. “But it was powerful for him to just say, `I know what is done and I’m sorry and it’s not right.’”

Disclosure: Bilal Motley is related by marriage to Steven Bradley, a member of the WHYY board.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.