They Saved Tens of Thousands of Lives, Then They Lost Their Jobs

This isn’t what a just transition looks like

Patrick Young
Jun 30 · 8 min read
Source F&WW Twitter Feed

At around 4 am on Friday, June 21, a massive fire and explosion rocked Alkylation unit at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia. The explosion was so powerful that it shook houses and apartment buildings around West Philadelphia. The ball of fire could be seen for miles, turning the predawn sky orange. As the fire raged, while every human instinct must have screamed to run away from the fire, members of the PES Emergency Response Team (ERT) dropped everything to run toward the fire. They battled the blaze for hours and by 10 am the fire was contained but still burning.

Like anyone who is familiar with refinery operations, Jim Savage, an operator at PES and a union activist immediately turned his thoughts to the ERT writing, “Huge props to our refinery Emergency Response Team. I’ve always questioned their sanity, but their courage and professionalism has never been in doubt. Those explosions were terrifying and I have no idea how we didn’t have injuries or even worse. It’s going to be a long and dangerous day for them, so keep them in your thoughts.”

It took a full day to fully extinguish the fire. The explosion was bad, but it could have been much, much worse. Unit 433, the Alkylation unit where the explosion occurred used hydrofluoric acid (HF) as part of the refining process. HF is by far the most dangerous chemical in the facility and PES’s most recent emergency response plan reported that there were as many as 71 tons of the chemical at the facility. Just after the explosion, the operator on the board at the refinery’s central control room transferred the HF that was in process to another container, preventing a mass release of the chemical.

Hydrofluoric acid is an incredibly dangerous chemical used as a catalyst in some oil refineries (there are inherently safer technologies in use in many refineries but owners of many older refineries, including the PES facility in South Philadelphia have refused to invest in safer systems). HF quickly penetrates human tissue, but it interferes with nerve function so burns may initially not feel painful, giving people a false sense of safety. Once it is absorbed into the blood through the skin it reacts with calcium and can cause cardiac arrest. It volatilizes at a relatively low temperature and travels as a dense vapor cloud — PES reports that the supply of HF stored at the South Philadelphia refinery could travel as far as 7 miles putting as many as a million people at risk.

On June 21, the members of United Steelworkers Local 10–1 on the PES Emergency Response Team and in the refinery’s control room prevented the dozens of tons of HF at the refinery from being released saving tens of thousands of lives.

Then on June 26th, those workers learned that they were losing their jobs. Philadelphia Energy Solutions announced that it was shutting down refinery operations and laying off nearly all of the workers at the refinery within weeks.

Declaring Victory

Philly Thrive, a local environmental group that had been organizing against the refinery for years immediately declared victory, changing the cover photo on its Facebook page to an image with the words “Victory: The largest polluter in Philly is closing” and, in much smaller letters, the words “time for a just transition! #GreenNewDeal.”

To their credit, Philly Thrive did issue a longer written statement on the closure laying out a more detailed set of demands for remediating the site and ensuring that workers’ pensions and healthcare were paid for. But that statement seemed to fall flat with the 1,000 workers — many of whom had just risked their lives to prevent a catastrophe and save tens of thousands of lives — who saw Philly Thrive proudly declaring victory right after they learned that they were losing their jobs.

Philly Thrive Declares Victory. Source: Philly Thrive Facebook Page

Tonight, there are a thousand families that are wondering what their futures will look like after the refinery closes. At PES, because of years of union struggle in the oil refining sector, those workers pulled in good, family-sustaining wages. They could own homes, send their kids to college, and plan for a comfortable retirement. But many of their skills are not immediately transferrable to other jobs, and the jobs that are available are largely non-union and pay half of what workers at PES were earning.

This isn’t what a just transition looks like

While the shutdown of the South Philadelphia refinery is unlikely to have any impact on fossil fuel consumption in the eastern United States in the short term — imports of refined gasoline and home heating oil will make up for the lost production — there is a scientific consensus that if we are to have any chance at averting the catastrophic changes in our climate that we are experiencing, we need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases.

Any sort of transition away from the fossil fuel economy will almost certainly be painful for the hundreds of thousands of workers currently employed in the sector. And there probably is no scenario where the majority of workers would in the fossil fuel industry would enthusiastically embrace such a dramatic change. But abruptly laying off the workers who just ran towards — not away from — danger and saved tens of thousands of lives is probably one of the most unjust transitions those workers could expect to face. Philadelphia Energy Solutions management apparently went as far as violating the federal WARN act by failing to give many of the workers 60-days-notice before unceremoniously escorting them out of the refinery carrying cardboard boxes containing their personal belongings.

When talking about plant closures and job loss, the climate movement often talks about a just transition. Interestingly, the idea of a ‘just transition’ isn’t an idea to come out of the environmental or climate movement. The term was coined by Tony Mazzocchi, a leader in the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (a predecessor of USW Local 10–1). In the early 1990s as the evidence that carbon in the atmosphere was contributing to climate change, Mazzocchi recognized that although it would be painful for workers, we would soon need to transition our economy away from fossil fuels. He said, “there is a Superfund for dirt. There ought to be one for workers,” proposing significant public investment to support fossil fuel workers who were transitioning out of the fossil fuel industry. When environmental partners suggested that the Superfund for Workers had too many negative connotations, Mazzocchi changed the name of his proposal to a Just Transition.

Since 1993 the term “just transition” has gained traction in much of the climate movement and in parts of the labor movement. While many are comfortable with using it as a vague catch-phrase, workers who are facing job loss have found some urgency in becoming much more specific about exactly what a just transition will look like. In the lead up to the 2015 UNFCCC talks in Paris, the International Trade Union Confederation published a five-point framework for what a just transition means:

1. Sound investments in low‐emission and job-rich sectors and technologies. These investments must be undertaken through due consultation with all those affected, respecting human and labour rights, and Decent Work principles.

2. Social dialogue and democratic consultation of social partners (trade unions and employers) and other stakeholders (i.e. communities).

3. Research and early assessment of the social and employment impacts of climate policies. Training and skills development, which are key to support the deployment of new technologies and foster industrial change.

4. Social protection, along with active labour markets policies.

5. Local economic diversification plans that support decent work and provide community stability in the transition. Communities should not be left on their own to manage the impacts of the transition as this will not lead to a fair distribution of costs and benefits

The shutdown of the South Philadelphia refinery was not preceded by investment in clean energy jobs (Principle 1) or early warning, training and skills development (Principle 2). Social protections have failed workers in Philadelphia as many were not even given the federally-required 60-day WARN notices and payments (Principle 4) and this shutdown comes at a time when the Philadelphia government is pushing expansion in an east-coast energy hub, not supporting local economic diversification (Principle 5). While environmental activists from organizations like Philly Thrive have issued sweeping demands for comprehensive transition programming there does not appear to be any indication that workers at the refinery were meaningfully involved in the crafting of that platform (Principle 2).

The shutdown of the South Philadelphia refinery failed badly on all five of the ITUC’s Just Transition Principles.

Where to go from here

The situation in South Philadelphia is bad and there isn’t anything that is going to make things okay for the 1,000 workers and their families who are struggling to imagine what their futures might look like. There are, however, some things that could help keep the situation from getting worse.

Everyone in the environmental community who celebrated the closure of the facility should be ready to campaign just as hard to demand that the Carlyle group, Energy Transfer Partners and PES’s other investors aren’t able to make off with the $1.25 billion insurance payments the company is poised to collect in the aftermath of the explosion just to leave workers and the community holding the bag. Workers and the community need to be first in line to collect whatever is left over to provide severance, healthcare, and to clean up the site that has been badly contaminated by over 150 years of oil refining.

Right now there is no superfund for workers, but there is a transition program that can be adopted for these workers. Because the lost production at the South Philadelphia refinery will be replaced with refined gasoline and home heating fuel imports, workers at the facility should be eligible for TAA benefits, which could provide urgently needed funds to support job retraining and extended unemployment. Supporting workers’ TAA petition should be a top priority of anybody who is concerned about a just transition at this facility.

Going forward, bold proposals like the Green New Deal start the ball rolling on an incredibly important discussion about building the clean energy infrastructure that we need to have a just transition away from fossil fuels. But we need to make sure that the workers and communities who are at the front lines of this transition are not left behind and have an opportunity to be a core part of the process. The workers at the South Philadelphia refinery risked their lives and saved thousands of lives on June 21. They didn’t cause that disaster and they deserve a much more just transition.