Massive refinery cleanup faces century of spills

Overtaken by green vegetation and unrelenting rust, this 150-year-old plant was once the oldest and largest working oil refinery on the U.S. East Coast.

Situated along the Schuylkill River in South Philadelphia, it is now undergoing one of the most radical environmental cleanups and ambitious transformations ever attempted in the United States.

It was a corroded pipe that federal investigators determined sparked a series of massive explosions in 2019 that closed the refinery for good.

Now, the 1,400-acre site is being reimagined as a new warehousing hub and office park.

PEREZ: "It's a heavy lift."

Roberto Perez - the CEO of Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which bought the old refinery out of bankruptcy in June for $225 million - says the task ahead of him will be one of the most difficult things he's ever done.

PEREZ: "It's probably one of the largest asbestos projects in the United States, if not the East Coast. The removal of hydrocarbons and not the good hydrocarbons - it's stuff that is now considered hazardous - that's just getting started. And, then, you have to remediate 150 years of refinery operations in order for us to put it back into commerce."

Underneath these overgrown storage tanks are buried pipelines, rail cars and a poisonous stew of toxic waste. Oil refining began here 1870, 100 years before the EPA was created, a time when fuel byproduct was simply dumped straight onto the ground.

The full extent of the pollution - and the steps needed to clean it up - won't be fully understood for years. But a lot is riding on the outcome.

Abdul Muhamad and his wife Marcella Muha, who live near the refinery, say their quality of life has already improved since the facility shut down. Now, Muhamad says his asthmatic baby son has been sleeping through the night and his wife's chronic headaches have become less frequent.

Helping so-called "fence-line communities" that are most impacted by industrial pollution is part of a pledge to achieve environmental justice made by President Joe Biden, who has committed to direct 40% of any federal investment made in clean energy to low-income neighborhoods like this one, a policy meant to direct jobs, revenue and cleanup projects their way.

Transforming the Philadelphia Energy Solutions plant is expected to take more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to see it through.

Perez said the cleanup and construction is expected to create about 13,000 jobs, with another 19,000 tied to the warehouse and office park, built to service a greener economy.