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Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back.

2020-07-28 09:00:21
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Four days after the explosion, some 100 Thrivers gathered at a small playground a few blocks from P.E.S. This time, the media was out in full force, jostling to get comments from members of Philly Thrive about the blast and fire. “The chemicals that they use, it’s, like, really killing us,” Johnson told a reporter from a local radio station. “It’s killing us slowly. That’s what it’s doing.”

As the Thrivers marched toward the refinery, they were met by a dozen police officers lined up in front of 17 police cars parked before the gates of P.E.S., where hard-hatted employees watched behind the metal fence as the protesters advanced. Chanting “What do we want? Clean air!” the Thrivers held up traffic for a half mile in either direction. Behind them, a large billboard sponsored by the local chapter of the United Steelworkers, the union representing the plant workers, rising over the highway, reminding drivers and neighbors that “Healthy communities need good jobs!”

After months attending Philly Thrive meetings and learning about the environmental dangers created by the refinery, after the explosion and her emergency trip to the hospital, Johnson had changed. The painful death of her first cousin Sharon, a longtime Grays Ferry resident, in late spring from pancreatic cancer was the final blow. This time Johnson, a yellow flower entwined in her braids, didn’t speak from the edge of the crowd, but stepped straight into the middle. “I was born in South Philadelphia, a few blocks over,” she said firmly. “The pollution and chemicals, they have been here 150 years. I have been here for a half century. I don’t know how long asthma has been in my system, but in 2016 the doctor didn’t even know if I was going to make it or not. They told my family to pray.”

Turning in a circle to face all sides of the crowd, she continued, her voice rising: “P.E.S. must go. They are taking our people away. By droves. By droves!” Johnson seemed to have shed any hint of the social anxiety that had been with her all her life. “I used to be a real quiet person, until I ran into Philly Thrive. Guess what? My voice will carry for the person down the street, for the person up the street. For the baby that cannot speak, for the senior citizen who cannot speak. My voice will travel. They will know my name and they will know my voice.” As she spoke, the crowd snapped their fingers, clapped and showered her with amens.

In late June, the chief executive of P.E.S., Mark Smith, announced that the explosion and fire made it impossible to keep the plant open. A month later, P.E.S. filed for bankruptcy. The company would receive an advance of up to $65 million in bankruptcy financing in order to wind down current operations and potentially access $1.25 billion in insurance coverage. The goal, according to a statement from P.E.S., was to rebuild the refinery’s fire-damaged infrastructure in order to position it for a sale and restart in the oil-refining business. (Representatives for the company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) The city of Philadelphia formed an advisory group of environmental experts, business leaders, city officials, organized labor and community members who would hold six meetings to address the fallout from the P.E.S. fire, collect information about the future of the company and the site and hear public comments.

After the refinery closed, some 1,000 employees were dismissed without severance pay or extended health benefits; P.E.S. executives received $4.5 million in retention bonuses. At the third meeting of the city’s advisory group in late August, convened to address labor issues, Philly Thrive members found themselves outnumbered by recently laid-off P.E.S. workers, mainly white men, some in tears, pleading for P.E.S. to remain in business. At the meeting, it was clear the distressed and angry former refinery employees didn’t know the mostly Black Thrivers though they had coexisted in the same corner of the city, breathing the same dirty air at work and at home, for years and years. When Sylvia Bennett stood at the microphone and told the advisory panel about her daughter Wanda, who was now in so much pain from cancer treatments that she could no longer walk, one worker shouted, “If you don’t like the refinery, then move!”

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