Will The Bellwether District be Climate Change Ready?
News of the decommissioning of one of the nation’s largest oil refineries was a huge feat for community activists condemning the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) legacy polluter site for decades.
Ambitious plans to rehabilitate and transform the 1300-acre site along the Schuylkill River into an expansive, multi-modal logistics and commercial hub in coming years to be known as “The Bellwether District” by Hilco Redevelopment Partners (HRP).
The former refinery site, as the largest re-development the city has seen in years, could face risks as climate charge supercharges storms and sea-level rise along waterfronts. How is this development, which accounts for 2% of Philadelphia’s landmass, addressing the toxic contamination at the site? How are they accounting for climate risks to align with a more sustainable, climate-resilient Philadelphia?
As the largest and oldest refinery (dating back to the late 1800s) on the East Coast, the PES refinery was notoriously toxic and went out with a“bang” when an internal explosion caused a fire that impaired critical infrastructure, and dispersed the cancer-causing chemical Benzene. These plumes were felt immediately by the EPA-designated environmental justice communities in South and Southwest Philly. These toxins and an almost 40,000-pound piece of shrapnel that was catapulted across the Schuylkill river, led to an investigation, which revealed the facility was not meeting today’s industry standards.
The site’s location along the Schuylkill has made it particularly lucrative for such industry overtime; pulling water for operations is exponentially easier as well as the disposal of wastewater, something the former PES was notorious for violating. It also has to do with how deeply contaminated and hazardous refinery sites become after use, as ground and air contamination is an inherent byproduct of its processes. It is common for defunct refinery sites to be resold to other petrol-chemical companies.
The site’s newest owner, HRP, has a drastically different plan for the former refinery site along the Schuylkill; cue “The Bellwether District”.
The Bellwether District
HRP, a subsidiary of Hilco Global, secured the site during the most recent PES bankruptcy in the summer of 2020. In 2012 when Sunoco faced bankruptcy, they created a partnership with the Carlyle Group to create Philadelphia Energy Solutions in 2012. Because of this Sunoco is responsible for the contamination pre-2012, and HRP is responsible for the contamination produced by PES after post-2012.
The Bellwether District is planned to emerge from the soil of the former refinery as “a commercial hub to “be shared by dozens of world-class companies that will benefit from Philadelphia’s diverse workforce and strategic location with an environmentally responsible infrastructure that will be great for all Philadelphians” according to a statement on the project’s website. The tagline on a promotional video claims it will deliver “Trees. Solar panels. Industry. And 30,000 jobs over the lifespan of the project.”
But standing in-between these plans is both time and the extensive environmental rehabilitation of the site that must be done to make it safe for development, which includes the raising of the actual soil itself to be up to par with Philadelphia’s flood management building standards.
The remediation largely tackles removing barrels of hydrocarbons, old buildings, and miles of asbestos-lined pipes in addition to contaminated soils and below-ground pools of benzene and contaminated groundwater.
I spoke with HRP’s Executive Vice President of Environmental Remediation, Julianna Connolly to learn more about the mechanics of the current work and how this process will account for climate realities along the waterfront.
“There were two remediation systems we took over responsibility for; one of them is a type of system that involves pumping both oil and groundwater out of the ground. It pumps them both at the same time. You pull those fluids up above the ground surface, and then you separate the oil from the water at the ground surface and the water gets treated. Another system we inherited is also based on a pumping or physical removal of the oil from the ground through wells. Both occur through wells, but the other one just removes the oil. So it’s a different type of pump that does not also bring the water up. it just pulls the oil up out of the wells, and that oil would be processed back through the refinery.
When it comes to remediating a site that is roughly two square miles of contamination, Connolly and her team asked “Are these the most efficient? Are they most effective? Are they going to get this stuff out of the ground as completely as possible? We decided, no, it wasn’t”.
To address the hurdle, HRP is testing an alternative technology called soil vapor extraction, where they apply a vacuum to cause liquid petroleum to volatilize so it turns into a gas.
Connolly explained “We’re converting it from a liquid to a vapor, pulling it out of the ground, and then we’re using that vapor (essentially gasoline) to run an internal combustion engine that then continues to pull the vapors out of the ground. It becomes close to a closed-loop system where we’re using the material that’s in the ground to essentially remediate itself, which has been very cool to see.”
They hope to transition to full-scale remedy use of this technology early this year.
Location! Location! Location!
One of the most lucrative aspects of this project is its waterfront location. However, it could be tricky given coastal sea-level rise projections, which in extreme scenarios shows a rise of four feet by mid-century.
A key element of HRP’s redevelopment plan involves raising the ground surface elevations on the portion of the Site east of the Schuylkill River. “Those lower areas are more vulnerable to flooding during storm events. We’re raising the elevation in areas that are currently lower-lying so that the new ground surface is less vulnerable to flooding right now. It won’t quite be this simple because it’s a huge property,” explained Connolly.
According to HRP’s Soil Management Plan, the final grades for all areas of the site east of the Schuylkill River achieve the design standard of being above the base flood elevation as established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The plan notes “Specifically, all parking lots will be above the BFE and all building floor slabs will be more than 4 feet above the BFE. All building floor slabs will also be above the 500-year floodplain”.
Large quantities of contaminants have been removed thus far, meaning that much less pollution is making its way into our air, land, and water. However, HRP is pursuing permits from the City to demolish the existing refinery equipment which would create and continue the use of the tank farm on site for the storage, import, and export of petroleum products.
Questions that reain
While The Bellwether District aims to correct the environmentally unjust history and provide opportunities, questions remain about its sustainability.
1) Current federal FEMA flood maps do not fully reflect the most recent modeling surrounding climate change impacts on flooding. A 2017 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that 58% of all FEMA flood maps are considered inaccurate or out-of-date. This past September, newly developed properties along the Schuylkill were rushed by murky floodwaters when hurricane Ida produced unprecedented amounts of rainfall, with inaccurate FEMA flood maps cited.
2) Raising the elevation of one site in a floodplain can exacerbate flooding in other vulnerable areas in the same floodplain. Floodwater displaced by seawalls and levees can be redirected into nearby areas. Sharing the same floodplain as The Bellwether District are notoriously vulnerable regions like Eastwick, the Navy Yard, and the airport.
3) These flood prevention measures do not apply to the petroleum tank farm HRP plans to continue to operate which is also located in a 100- and 500-year floodplain alongside the rest of the site. Mid-century sea-level rise would compromise the integrity and functionality of the storage tanks containing hazardous materials.
HRP did not respond to questions about these issues.
Community group United South/Southwest continues to push for answers as they develop a Community Benefits Agreement with HRP.
Cover photo: Bellwether District on Facebook