Photographing the Former Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery for Grid Magazine

Grid Magazine, a publication focused on sustainability culture in Philadelphia, recently commissioned me to photograph the site of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery for a feature entitled ‘Earth, Wind and Mire‘. I encourage you to read the full article; it’s well worth your time. Their art director was familiar with The Waste Stream, my project photographing repurposed industrial waste sites with unique pinhole lenses made from consumer waste, and felt that I’d be a great match for this story.

A Bit of Background

Located in South Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River, the 1400 acre PES site had been an oil refinery since 1860. Sunoco owned the site for decades, and an explosion closed the refinery in 2019. Hilco Redevelopment Partners, a company specializing in reusing former industrial sites, currently owns the site. Hilco plans to redevelop the PES site into a warehouse complex and life sciences campus called The Bellwether District; critics maintain that Hilco is failing to properly address the pollution left from 150+ years of industry.

I made landscape photographs of the site. I also made portraits of Russell Zerbo, an advocate for the environmental nonprofit Clean Air Council who is featured in the article. For the images of the site, I photographed a tank farm used in the refining process. I also made scenics showing the sites proximity to the Schuylkill River and the rest of Philadelphia.

The Proposed Solution, and a Brief Aside About Asbestos

Encapsulation is used to remediate certain waste sites. Work I made at the Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site for The Waste Stream illustrates this. The amount of asbestos waste is so large that removal would take years and risk contaminating a much larger area. Rather than excavating and removing the waste, the choice was made to stabilize it in place with a vegetative cap.

A naturalized encapsulation with a permeable vegetative cap is seen as the ideal way to cap waste sites. Vegetative caps break down harmful chemicals and help with groundwater concerns. They also minimize erosion, flooding and run-off issues that impermeable caps such as parking lots and buildings can create.

Hilco’s focuses are soil contamination, building infrastructure, and proving that future employees can work at the site without negative health consequences. Their plan will redistribute soil across the site, covering contaminated soil with less-contaminated soil. Hilco asserts that this approach, when paired with impermeable barriers such as building foundations and parking lots, will encapsulate the worst soil contamination. The company maintains that surface soil pollution would meet standards acceptable by law for nonresidential areas.

Beyond the PES Site Itself

Large concentrations of lead, benzene, and other toxic chemicals remain in the soil and groundwater of the PES site. In addition to the Schuylkill River and smaller bodies of water that are home to fish, plant life, and wildlife, the area surrounding the site is a mixture of industry and very dense residential neighborhoods. Critics argue that by relying on impermeable capping and by not addressing groundwater and air quality considerations, Hilco will expose these surrounding areas to continuing contamination over the coming years.

Air Quality Concerns

Benzene is a cancer-causing compound associated with petroleum products that can become airborne. A 2019 study analyzed benzene concentrations across 100 different U.S. refineries. This study found the highest concentration at the PES refinery, with a level nearly five times the EPA standard. Hilco stopped monitoring for benzene in December of 2022. The results from the final month showed benzene levels remained three times higher than the EPA’s maximum level for long-term exposure.

Water Concerns

Encapsulation removes the need to excavate and transport waste. However, it also ensures that groundwater considerations remain ongoing and limits future uses of the site. Mr. Zerbo is critical of the decision to rely on impermeable surfaces for the encapsulation. These surfaces result in increased flooding, soil erosion, and run-off compared to vegetative caps, potentially allowing contaminated material to move off site.

A 2022 study by Evergreen Resources Management, Sunoco’s corporate subsidiary focused on cleanups, determined it likely that chemicals from the site are entering the Schuylkill River through contaminated groundwater. Evergreen also determined that wildlife would not be negatively affected by exposure to these chemicals. Regulatory bodies such as the EPA found several problems with the report; Evergreen must revise it. A separate 2022 study projects an underground benzene bloom spreading under Siena Place, a newly built luxury residential development, within a decade.

I made some portraits of Mr. Zerbo to support the story. We made portraits along the Schuylkill River and near the tank farm on the site. I also made some landscape photographs in Siena Place.