A Crude Future: When Oil Refineries And Public Interest Converge

August 17, 2015 | by Coryn Wolk


Gulf Oil refinery fire as seen from the Pennrose Avenue bridge 1975

The view of the 1975 Gulf Oil refinery fire from the Pennrose Avenue bridge | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Editor’s Note: Since Europeans settled here, Philadelphia’s rivers have been objects of contention, between industry and recreation. Today, the conflict continues, and heightens, as oil and gas industry investors position the city as an “energy hub” and planners seek to build a string of high quality public spaces along both the Schuylkill and Delaware riverbanks. Coryn Wolk, photographer and outreach coordinator at the Clean Air Council, begins a series of articles exploring the conflict. Today, she recalls the 1975 Gulf Oil refinery fire and traces the more recent steps that have put industry, the environment, and recreation in real tension.

Forty years ago today, Philadelphia’s Gulf Oil refinery complex on the Schuylkill River—part of the largest refinery complex on the eastern seaboard—ignited in flames. Six firefighters died and two more would later succumb to burns by the time the blaze was extinguished two days later. The refinery caught fire again two weeks later, this time only injuring one—former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who broke his hip running from an explosion.

The accident was the most deadly Philadelphia refinery fire in living memory. But in the 40 intervening years, memory of the tragic fire has largely receded into a greater pattern of disaster, revival, and transformation of the petrochemical industry in Philadelphia. As with the other refineries and petrochemical plants in the region, the Point Breeze and Girard Point halves of the refinery complex had each changed hands numerous times before 1975’s fires and continued to do so over the following decades, with little change in the number or type of periodic accidents. Like the tidal waters of the Schuylkill River that hosts it, the petrochemical industry is in a constant state of ebb and flow in Philadelphia. Today, business is nearing high tide.

Firemen pulling hoses through water to reach Gulf Oil refinery fire 1975

Firemen carry hoses through water to reach the fire at the Gulf Oil refinery in South Philadelphia, 1975 | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The advent of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Pennsylvania and the crude oil boom in the Bakken Shale Formation in North Dakota and Canada have led to a huge supply of domestic oil and gas. Industry players, seeking new venues to process and sell their supply, see potential in Philadelphia’s mixture of idled infrastructure and vacant riverfront land. Philadelphia’s refining complex, including the former Gulf Oil refinery, was one of the first pieces to be transformed by the gush of oil from the west. In 2012, the refining complex became Philadelphia Energy Solutions and since then has gone from operating at a net loss in 2013 to $143.6 million in profits in 2014, with plans to go public.

Unlike previous surges in the city’s fossil fuel sector, however, this one overlaps with a new appreciation for Philadelphia’s riverbanks and a movement to reclaim them for trails, green spaces, and the knowledge sector. Even more quickly than the City and its foundation and non-profit partners can open new trails and parks along the Schuylkill and Delaware riverbanks, the fossil fuel industry has begun to build and plan for a massive expansion of Philadelphia’s pipeline and petrochemical processing infrastructure over the same territory. How did these two competing visions for Philadelphia’s riverbanks come to coincide? Can they coexist?

A String of Fires and Lessons Learned

On January 31st, 1975 the American oil tanker Edgar M. Queeny collided with Greek oil tanker Corinthos while it was docked at the British Petroleum Oil Co. refinery on the Delaware River near Marcus Hook. Twenty-nine people were killed, and the fire burned for three days. 350 residents of the small, Delaware County borough were evacuated from their homes after a series of explosions shattered windows and blew doors off of their hinges.

Curt Weldon was a young teacher and an assistant fire chief at the nearby Viscose Fire Company during the time of the Corinthos disaster. He was one of the first responders to the fire. Weldon later referred to the disaster as reminiscent of “a holocaust” and recalled seeing body parts strewn around the site of the explosion. The consequences of a lack of preparation for the accident shaped the course of his career. With another firefighter present that day, he cowrote The Corinthos Disaster: Oil Tanker Fire and Explosion for use as an educational book for other fire departments. As fire chief of Marcus Hook, a town surrounded by fossil fuel activity and, thus, public risk, Weldon pushed for improved emergency response resources and coordination. Two years after the Corinthos disaster, in part as a reaction to the lack of support for emergency response from elected officials, he campaigned and became mayor of Marcus Hook and tightened environmental enforcement of the petrochemical industry’s operations there. Weldon later became a member of the United States House of Representatives and represented the 7th District of Pennsylvania between 1987 to 2007 where he continued to lobby for improving emergency response funding and preparation as well as improved port security to prevent a terrorist attack with similar consequences to the Corinthos explosion. Throughout and then after his political career, he has used the Corinthos disaster as an example of the consequences of neglecting infrastructure security and disaster preparation. In May of 2014, Weldon spoke at a hearing held by the Pennsylvania Veteran Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee on emergency response and capabilities related to crude oil transportation across the state. He warned of a disaster waiting to happen as the surge of train cars carrying Bakken crude oil continues to pour into Philadelphia and the region. “Make no mistake,” Weldon said, “an incident involving rail transport of oil will occur in the commonwealth and lives, including first-responder lives, and property will be put at risk. These incidents have occurred in the past and they will occur in the future.”

In 1987, Philadelphia’s refinery–then under Chevron ownership–caught fire again, this time from a lightning bolt strike to a one million gallon tank of gasoline. Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond had also been involved in the 1975 Gulf Oil Refinery fire. After the disaster, he served on a joint industry and emergency response committee to prevent future disasters and improve responses to them. The committee improved communication between the refinery and fire officials and increased the number of fire drills required at the refinery. One such drill took place two weeks before the accident. Both Richmond and Chevron’s representative, Jack Galloway, credited their success in battling the fire to the recent drill and improved communication.

Fire fighters battle the nine alarm blaze at the ARCO refinery on 26th Street & Passyunk Avenue.

Fire fighters battle the nine alarm blaze at the Atlantic Refinery at 26th Street and Passyunk Avenue | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

However, despite progress toward preparedness and industry regulations, the years since the 1975 disasters have been peppered with fires, toxic releases, derailments, and spills. Whether an act of God or minor carelessness, prompt responses to accidents are usually handled swiftly by first responders and quickly brought under control. In cases of negligence, the responsible company customarily promises a thorough investigation and new procedures to prevent future accidents. Despite their reassurances of having learned how to prevent and respond to previous incidents, news reports consistently present examples of how small, but threatening accidents at refineries are often a hair away from disaster.

In 1988, at the Atlantic Refinery in Southwest Philadelphia, a tank holding waste products blew its lid off and the flammable contents of the container ignited. Walt MacDonald, a reporter for Shadow Traffic news service, was flying overhead in a helicopter at the time of the fire and later told The Inquirer, “If that lid had blown to the east, it could have hit the gasoline tanks. It would have been a catastrophe.”

One worrisome detail emerged after the 1987 Chevron refinery blaze: the fire could have easily spread to an adjacent gasoline tank if not for the luck of a strong wind that was blowing the flames away from the tank. After visiting the site of the fire, Mayor Wilson Goode said to The Inquirer, “An act of God started the fire and an act of God helped to contain it.”

As the River Goes Up, the Refineries Go Down

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Cooling towers at Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery in Southwest Philadelphia | Photo: Michael Bixler

A few years ago, the petrochemical industry in Philadelphia was struggling. Despite the growing supply of cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, the industry had not found a cost-effective way to bring that gas to Philadelphia. Philadelphia-area refineries were dependent on expensive imported crude oil and unable to compete with Gulf Coast refineries closer to foreign sources. By 2011, Sunoco’s refining operations were so unprofitable that Sunoco leadership said its Philadelphia-area refineries were losing $1 million a day. The company refocused on retail fuel sales and terminal operations. Sunoco Logistics, Inc. would run its pipeline operations (both Sunoco, Inc. and Sunoco Logistics are under the same Energy Transfer corporate umbrella). If a buyer couldn’t be found, the company’s Philadelphia refining operations would end, and take approximately 1,500 jobs and local tax revenue with them.

With refinery operations on the wane and demand and money for redevelopment and beautification on the rise, decision-makers’ eyes turned to the city’s riverbanks. During his campaign in 2007, Mayor Michael Nutter vowed to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America, in part by increasing the amount of green space, recreational trails, and bicycling infrastructure in the city. Beginning in 2009, City, business, and nonprofit agencies coordinated a series of studies and plans for Philadelphia’s green spaces, riverfronts, and former industrial areas. These included the Delaware Waterfront Master Plan (adopted by the City Planning Commission in 2012), the Lower Schuylkill River District Master Plan (adopted in 2013), and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability’s Greenworks plan, which aimed to make Mayor Nutter’s vow a reality.

By 2009, detailed plans were in the works to extend Philadelphia’s trail network, particularly along the Schuylkill River from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Schuylkill’s connection to the Delaware River. Bartram’s Garden, on the western bank of the Schuylkill nestled between the Schuylkill, freight rail lines, and former industrial property, became a key link for the trail’s westward expansion. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, a quasi-public agency charged with implementing economic development strategies, acquired 50 acres on either side of the property, with plans to turn them into green space, trails, and new business development once the petroleum-contaminated soil was remediated.

But even as agencies convened to create a unified plan for the Lower Schuylkill and Delaware Riverbanks, public officials’ statements belied conflicting visions.

“Hidden no more, this area has the potential to become a clean, green, urban machine that will power the economic engine of Philadelphia well through the 21st century,” wrote Harris M. Steinberg, then executive director of PennPraxis of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, in an op-ed he penned in 2012 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. PennPraxis contributed to the Delaware River Waterfront and Lower Schuylkill River District Master Plans.

“In a city that’s out of land, but for this, we should be thinking long and hard about what we see happening there,” said Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger, in a 2012 Philadelphia Inquirer article about the future of the lower Schuylkill River banks. Greenberger’s office had begun to look at the lower Schuylkill for knowledge industry offices and factory conversions, along with public trails. But what about the refining infrastructure?

PIDC had collaborated on the Delaware River Waterfront and Lower Schuylkill River District Master Plans. However, PIDC’s president, John Grady, noted in the same article, “You have a site here with rail, barge, and existing pipeline access. How can you leverage that investment to attract more production and refining activity?”

Mayor Nutter expressed a desire to balance uses when he spoke at Pu­laski Park in Port Rich­mond during the 2013 dedication of the 1.6-mile Port Richmond Trail that connects to the expanding East Coast Gre­en­way. “We have to fig­ure out how to make it all work to­geth­er. In­dustry is a big part of Phil­adelphia’s economy. What we haven’t done enough is to util­ize the as­sets we have,” he said.

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Too close for comfort. Unit train carrying hundreds of gallons of crude oil snakes between the Schuylkill River Trail and the densely populated Devil’s Pocket and Fitler Square neighborhoods | Photo: Michael Bixler

In 2012, construction on the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk began. The lack of space between the CSX-owned freight railway lines and the river necessitated a creative solution: a boardwalk suspended over the river itself. An innovative, 17-million-dollar project in the heart of Philadelphia led to both eager anticipation and doubt among politicians and pundits.

At the same time, Philadelphia’s oil and gas industry caught up. Quietly, at first. The Marcellus Shale natural gas boom that had begun in Pennsylvania led to yearly Shale Gas Insight conferences at the Philadelphia Convention Center. However, most Philadelphians viewed fracking as something happening “out there” and having a limited impact on their lives and immediate environs. The Carlyle Group bought a majority stake in Sunoco’s Philadelphia refinery operations in 2012, and relaunched the business as Philadelphia Energy Solutions with Sunoco, Inc. a minority partner. Braskem America, the American branch of a Brazilian petrochemical giant, took over Sunoco’s propylene splitter assets in Marcus Hook. Sunoco Logistics announced plans to convert an existing pipeline and build a second new pipeline to bring natural gas liquids (NGLs) from western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook for export overseas. These sweeping mergers were heralded by some as a last minute rescue of the refineries and the communities and workers dependent on them. Aside from the dramatic timing, there was little public expectation of growth.

As the Schuylkill Boardwalk began to rise over the river, mile-long unit trains of black tank cars began to arrive in increasing numbers on the tracks that hug and crisscross the Schuylkill River from Interstate 76 down to the refineries on the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. Capitalizing on the cheap domestic crude coming out of the Bakken Shale formation, Philadelphia’s refineries and terminals had constructed new unloading facilities and become a chief national destination for crude-by-rail. In 2013, the natural gas industry changed its Pennsylvania conference’s name to Shale Insight to reflect the broadening of its focus. Then, in January 2014, seven cars of a CSX unit train bound for the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery derailed over the Schuylkill River just south of the South Street Bridge. For over a week the cars hung tilted between the tracks and the river. As with so many previous accidents, the city’s luck held, and none of the cars were compromised in the accident or fell from the bridge into the river.

After the 2014 oil train derailment, public awareness of oil train traffic through Philadelphia grew, but public outcry was mostly limited to organizations that had already been paying attention to the issue, including environmental advocacy groups and neighborhood CDCs in the vicinity of the refinery. Because the power to improve rail safety standards and limit oil train traffic is held at the federal level, these groups pushed regional governmental bodies for more information on oil train traffic and improved emergency response plans.

No better view illustrates the current conflict between public and petrochemical industry use of the city’s waterfront than from the locally and nationally lauded Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk | Photo: Coryn Wolk

The results have been mixed. Philadelphia City Council held a public hearing with CSX following the 2014 derailment, which spurred a hearing in Delaware County as well. Curt Weldon, no longer in office but still advocating for emergency preparation and response to oil industry accidents, testified. Evoking the Corinthos disaster, Weldon expressed doubt about the refineries’ and communities’ ability to respond to an accident after twenty years of cutbacks in industry emergency response resources. Despite public pressure, a second Philadelphia oil train derailment in February 2015, and a 2015 City Council resolution calling for increased public information about oil train emergency response plans, Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management has refused to increase transparency about preparation for a derailment, citing that information is being withheld to deter the potential for terrorist attacks. In July, Samantha Phillips, director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, told StateImpact, a project of NPR, that demands for emergency response plans is simply activist fear mongering. “They are misrepresenting the concern and they are hyping people up because they want to get a lot of traction for their own initiatives.”

In response to demands from local emergency response teams, CSX began holding specialized trainings to respond to an oil train derailment. However, at the federal level, despite pressure from public officials and larger advocacy organizations, the Department of Transportation has dragged its feet in implementing stricter standards for oil train cars and operations. As with so many previous accidents, Philadelphia narrowly avoided a worse disaster when an Amtrak train derailed within 200 yards of an empty oil train. Following the accident national outcry led to long-promised upgrades to Amtrak’s safety equipment. However, aside from a few news stories, little attention has been paid to the oil trains sharing Amtrak’s routes.

A Collision Course

| Photo: Coryn Wolk

Almost 100 demonstrators gathered at the “Greater Philadelphia: The Next Energy Hub” oil and industry conference hosted by Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s Council for Growth at Drexel University in December, 2014 | Photo: Coryn Wolk

While construction and planning continues for the expansion of Philadelphia’s parks, trail networks, and public green space, the fossil fuel industry is poised to not just fill but overflow its historic boundaries. From 2010 to 2014, North American crude by rail shipments went from 20,000 bpd to one million bpd–an increase of 5,400 percent. Between 45 and 80 oil trains pass through Philadelphia each week, many of them heading to Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which also receives crude oil by barge from terminals as far as Albany, New York. The refinery has not yet reached its daily capacity for oil train unloading, but already plans to expand operations and go public as soon as conditions are favorable. (Philadelphia Energy Solutions was scheduled to go public on August 6th, but chose to postpone the sale, in part due to depressed oil prices.)

In 2015, following over a year of rumors, Sunoco Logistic announced that it planned to expand its Mariner East 2 pipeline project and build a third Mariner East pipeline along the same route as the previously announced Mariner East 1 and 2. Since the beginning of the Marcellus Shale fracking boom, industry boosters had lamented the lack of substantial pipeline connections between Pennsylvania’s natural gas production and Philadelphia.

In May, Spectra Energy announced the end of open season bidding for an expansion of the Philadelphia Lateral pipeline segment, which connects the city to the shale fields by way of the newly expanded Texas Eastern pipeline.

The now-vacant Southport section of Philadelphia’s Navy Yard–home of nesting eagles–has become the site of a territorial battle between companies that envision it as a shipping terminal and those that see it becoming a new anchor for petrochemical operations and export.

| Photo: Meenal Raval

The oil train protest flotilla spills out into the water during the 2015 Tidal Schuylkill Boat Parade| Photo: Meenal Raval

One crucial difference between the expansion of green spaces and industrial operations has been the lack of opportunity for public input. Philadelphia’s industrial future has largely been determined behind closed doors. In December 2014, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce held an oil and gas promotional summit at Drexel University. While some government officials attended, including City Council President Darrell Clarke, the public and press were shut out. Philadelphia City Council has held several public hearings about the vision for Philadelphia as future fossil fuel energy hub, but at the bulk of these hearings, testimony from members of the public, and representatives of non-industry groups was limited to three minutes apiece after hours of testimony from industry representatives.

At first glance, this could be attributed to differences in public funding. However, a significant portion of funding for most trail planning and execution has come from non-governmental sources with no obligation to follow the public’s vision. And exchange for the promise of jobs and tax revenue, the petrochemical industry has received millions of dollars in government grants for the acquisition and expansion of the Philadelphia region’s fossil fuel infrastructure.

Without a substantial venue for public participation, groups and individuals opposed to the oil industry’s vision for Philadelphia’s riverbanks have begun to innovate. After an April 2015 City Council public hearing about potential liquified natural gas exports from Philadelphia, where only one non-industry representative spoke, members of the public later disrupted Councilman David Oh’s evening symposium on the subject in protest, shouting over the very industry representatives who’d testified at length before City Council earlier that day. In response to Philadelphia Energy Solutions sponsorship of Bartram’s Garden’s River Fest and the Tidal Schuylkill Boat Parade, activists entered an oil train flotilla in the boat parade, floating down the Schuylkill in front of actual oil trains on the riverbank. These disruptions have attracted the attention of some members of city government and the ire of the fossil fuel industry. But without a genuine strategy for balancing riverfront uses, these conflicts will continue as they have for decades until they come to a dangerous head.


About the Author

Coryn Wolk Coryn Wolk is an environmental researcher focused on transportation and energy infrastructure. She is a member of the Philadelphia chapter of EDGE (Ending Dirty Gas Exploitation by Encouraging Development of a Green Economy). She is also an occasional photographer and proud Narberth native. Follow her on Twitter at @CorynWolk


  1. chris dougherty says:

    “At first glance, this could be attributed to differences in public funding. However, a significant portion of funding for most trail planning and execution has come from non-governmental sources with no obligation to follow the public’s vision.” Would love to see the substantiation of this statement.

    1. Coryn Wolk says:

      The statement is a bit of an oversimplification of a complex issue (which would probably make good fodder for a longer piece!). To explain the sentence in the piece a bit more:

      There isn’t one standard course of development and public/government oversight trail/park development, since it depends on the historic land use and current land ownership. In general, in the Philadelphia area, a lot of the funding for park/trail planning and construction comes from the William Penn Foundation and the Knight Foundation (who dispense the money essentially at their discretion), and then the full process is managed by a mixture of the Foundations, nonprofit organizations (PEC, the Fairmount Park Conservancy, etc.), and governmental/quasi-governmental organizations, generally with significant and repeated opportunities for public input.

      In contrast, industrial developments are funded by a mixture of private dollars and governmental grants and tax breaks and then overseen by governmental bodies. In contrast to the many, many master plans and publication of evaluations of potential trail routes, potential plans for industrial development are much more secretive, and the opportunities for public comment/intervention once a project is announced are more limited/legal in nature.

      A few examples: Delaware Riverkeeper Network had to file a Right to Know request to get a summary of proposals for the Southport site, and even then much of the information was redacted. Sunoco Logistics has tried to limit public meetings about the Mariner East pipeline to landowners directly adjacent to the proposed pipeline. In the state’s RACP grant program, which has awarded tens of millions of dollars to energy hub projects, the only opportunity for public comment is a 30-day period between companies’ initial proposals and their evaluation by the selection committee, but it’s not a significant part of the process (it doesn’t even show up in the general timeline on the RACP website).

  2. Marie says:

    Bravo, Coryn! Bravo! This is exceptionally well written. The best piece I haver ever read on this subject

  3. Aaron says:

    Terrific article! Really enjoyable read.

    re:”At first glance, this could be attributed to differences in public funding. However a significant portion of funding for most trail planning and execution has come from non-governmental sources with no obligation to follow the public’s vision.” This is an important point, but I have to agree with Chris, this point should be substantiated and it is easy to do so. You should not be afraid to name names. Much of the work that traditionally was in the hands of parks departments are now in the hands of ngo’s and non-profit’s. These organizations are not accountable to the public, they are accountable to their funders and their board-members who are almost exclusively real estate developers, business executives and even representatives from the energy industry.

    With the boom in the local energy economy, much of the “green platform” has been sidelined. You can already see this reflected in Mayor Nutter’s evolution in rhetoric on the energy industry. Well done, Coryn.

  4. Julie says:

    Great work Coryn! mazel tov!!

  5. Stephanie says:

    great work Glad to see someone understands the true dynamic at work

  6. Mike G says:

    best article I have read on this site in years

  7. Refinery worker says:


  8. Mike says:

    I see all those petrochemical demonstrators had no compuntions whatsoever about wearing clothing and utilyzing boats all made from petrochemicals.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Amazing amazing article

  10. Anthony Rutkowski says:

    Pipelines eliminate oil trains. Duh!

  11. Millie Hue says:

    It’s interesting to know that there are areas where crude oil would be expensive but will still be in demand in their location. I guess there should be other prefabricated modular crude oil refineries to choose from as well which can help the community these days. It would be of huge help when the resources would be ensuring that the prices would be competitive as well. These days we definitely need more options to help our daily expenses from constantly going up.

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