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 quality public spaces along both the Schuylkill and Delaware riverbanks. Environmental researcher Coryn Wolk continues her series of articles exploring the conflict. With this next installment, Wolk looks at a youth baseball field in South Philly, built on top of a former lead smelter and alloy production company site, surrounded by a crude oil refinery.
The Philadelphia Energy Solutions Field at 35th and Moore in South Philadelphia isn’t easy to find. The manicured baseball field, home of the Marzano Scout League and Philadelphia Senators, is situated at the intersection of two dead-end streets in an industrial corridor parallel to I-95. Parking spaces for the field are scattered between an assortment of non-potable water trucks, short-dumping piles, and trailers of dubious operability that changes from week to week. The field itself is surrounded by Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ oil refining complex, a Verizon building, and Buckley & Company contractors.
Of these three major businesses, PES is by far the dominant feature in sound and sight around the ball field, which is located on PES owned-land in the refining complex’s North Yard. The 1,400-acre PES refining complex can be roughly divided into four major sections: two sub-refineries and the North Yard on the east bank of the Schuylkill River and the Schuylkill River Tank farm on the Schuylkill River. From south to north along the east bank of the Schuylkill River from its confluence with the Delaware River, its two sub-refineries operate side by side. Further north, after the PGW tract of land and the Passyunk Ave bridge, is the PES North Yard. The baseball field is nestled here, separated from active petrochemical infrastructure by fences and vacant space.
As former lead smelters are transformed into residential and commercial areas in Philadelphia’s River Wards, there has been increased public discussion of the health risks from long-buried industrial pollution and ethics of new exposure to them through construction and new uses. On the other side of the city in South Philly, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Baseball Field, transformed from a hazardous chemical site into a baseball field by chance, is a unique case study of the possibilities and risks of redeveloping historic, industrial tracts.
What Lies Beneath
While oil storage, transfer, and basic refining operations began further south along the Schuylkill in the late 1860s, the first labeled use of the 35th and Moore site in publicly available maps shows up in the 1910 G.W. Bromley Philadelphia Atlas. At that time, the property and vicinity were owned by S. G. Rosengarten, and the site is labeled as “Schuylkill Chemical Co.” Atlantic Refining Company was still a small operation then in comparison to its current size, and only appears as close as Mifflin Street and Maiden Lane. Metallurgical Products Co. first shows up on a Works Progress Administration map from 1942. As the company was established in 1909 and no other maps show Schuylkill Chemical Co. on that site, the company likely began operating there earlier, however, maps from 1910 to 1942 only label the site as “industrial.”
Beginning in the 1940s, the basics of Metallurgical Products Co’s use of the site are easy to find. City archives include photographs of the buildings there in the 1950s, and the company regularly advertised in the wanted section of Popular Mechanics in the 1940s and 1950s. An ad from a 1947 issue of Popular Mechanics reads: “MERCURY (Quicksilver). Write for quotation stating quantity. Metallurgical Products Co., 35th and Moore Sts, Philadelphia, Penna.”
According to a parcel diagram produced by Sunoco during the refinery’s 2012 transition, in 1961, Atlantic Refining Company (soon to become ARCO) acquired the grounds of Metallurgical Products Co. from Reba Wilenchik. A 1947 Harrisburg Telegraph obituary for Wilenchik’s father states that he worked in the livestock business in Philadelphia for 55 years. It is possible that he leased the parcel to Metallurgical Products Co. as part of that area’s gradual transition from farms to industry and that Wilenchik cemented that transition by selling the parcel to Atlantic Refining Company. In any case, Metallurgical Products Co. continued operating at the site until 1970, when it moved to its current location, in West Chester.
The company is now run by the founder’s grandson, Michael Goodman, and mainly produces Phosphor Copper for copper tubing and brazing rods. Goodman recalls that the company leased the property and buildings from ARCO, and, therefore, did not go through any land transfer process or remediation when it moved to West Chester or retain any ties to the site. “This is the first that I’ve become aware that it’s a baseball field,” Goodman said.
A Place to Play
In 2002, Steve Koplove, a Philadelphia lawyer, was looking for somewhere in the city for his son and other young talented players to practice baseball in between weekend games. Someone tipped him off that there was a vacant lot of good size around 35th and Moore. “We didn’t have a place to play. I drove around the streets and I found this basically beat up lot by the refinery that was not in use,” Koplove recalled. Koplove had trouble finding the lot in the back streets alongside I-76 and I-95. The lot was overgrown, with a “beat-up backstop” and evidence of short-dumping. “It was nothing,” Koplove recalled, but he saw potential. Shortly afterwards, Koplove sent a fax to the refinery, then owned by Sunoco, and asked for permission to use the field for baseball if he found financing to build it.
John Marzano, former Major League Baseball player and sports commentator and one of Koplove’s closest friends, Koplove’s son Michael, and other supporters raised the money to return the vacant lot to a playing field, including putting up fences and building and buying maintenance equipment. A year later, when his son’s cohort turned 13, they did another round of fundraising to make the field regulation size. Each time, the refinery kicked in some funding.
In 2007, Marzano and the Koploves launched the Marzano Scout League at the field. The League, open to the most talented high school baseball players in the Delaware Valley, gives players the opportunity to play at a higher level and be scouted by professional scouts and college coaches. “The people at Sunoco, and now the people at Philadelphia Energy Solutions, they’re great. They’re so supportive of what we do,” Koplove said.
On a sunny Sunday in July, the Philly Bandits, part of the Marzano Scout League, played the Camden Prospects. About forty family members and guests watched from the periphery, mostly on lawn chairs under the field’s few trees or pop-up tents brought from home. Despite the Philadelphia Bandits’ name, most of the high-school age players live in Bucks or Montgomery County.
Sheila Czepiel of Devon and Kim Buck of Berwyn watched their sons from the bleachers. Both spoke positively of the field, with a few small caveats such as a lack of bathrooms or concessions and the field’s single set of aluminum bleachers.
Asked if she has any feelings about the field’s proximity to the refinery, Czepiel replied, “I don’t have an issue with that. The only issue is that it’s a dust bowl.”
Buck concurred. “The person who maintains the field is amazing.” She explained, “I’ve seen fields in worse conditions in nicer areas. It’s just odd that it’s in the middle of the refinery.”
After the game, a group of parents packed up their shared pop-up tent from between two large water trailers outside the field’s fence.
Asked about the field and its proximity to the refinery, Justin, of Bucks County, joked, “I like the sounds.”
Lisa, of Bucks County, explained, “Is this the ideal place to play baseball? No. But they keep the field in good condition. The boys don’t care where they play.”
No Rush to Remediate
In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted assessments of properties in Pennsylvania historically used as lead smelters, including the ball field at 35th and Moore. Twenty-nine soil samples were taken across the ball field. In a report, the EPA explained, “Some locations chosen were biased toward areas most frequently occupied by players (e.g. typical field positions) and some locations were random around the outfield and perimeter of the property.” The results ranged from 18.31 to 225.26 ppm. These are below the level which is currently considered unsafe for children’s recreation—400 ppm. Perhaps because of the small size of Metallurgical Products Co. or through the process of turning the site into a baseball field, these levels are also well below those found by Philadelphia Inquirer reporters at several former lead smelters in Port Richmond.
DEP expressed impatience with the timeline proposed for remediating the section of the refinery grounds that includes the ball field in correspondence form 2015 between the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Philadelphia Energy Solutions, and the companies responsible for sampling and remediating the refinery grounds. The main concern was the presence and lack of remediation of several underground plumes of LNAPL (liquid pollutants less dense than water, often hydrocarbons such as gasoline), including underneath the Verizon property a block southeast of the ball field. The ball field is not mentioned as an area of concern for LNAPL plumes or vapors, although other documents show LNAPL present in monitoring wells at the corner of the ball field.
In May 2016, DEP, EPA, Evergreen (the PES subsidiary responsible for site remediation), and Stantec (an outside sampling and remediation consultant) met in 2016 to discuss the remediation plan for the North Yard. DEP’s official notes for the meeting mention that a Remedial Investigation Report [RIR] proposed by Sunoco for the site in 2012 was considered officially disapproved. The meeting attendees discussed Evergreen planned to “collect outdoor air samples over six LNAPL plumes to assess worker exposures.” The meeting notes continue, “The baseball field in the north is understood to remain in PES’s ownership. A lead investigation of soil was completed in 2009. That data should be included in the RIR. Because the field is recreational and publically [sic] accessible, a residential Act 2 standard must be attained there.”
The PES North Yard, which includes the ball field, has been the site of some of the most significant developments in the refinery’s 150-year evolution. In 2014, the North Yard’s primary facility, the North Yard terminal, was expanded to become the East Coast’s largest crude oil rail unloading terminal. The terminal can unload up to four mile-long oil trains per day, or 280,000 barrels, and has a 20,000 barrel per hour pumping station. Crude oil train traffic, much of it destined for PES, became an issue of wide public concern in 2014, after a derailment and explosion in Quebec killed 47 people and a derailed oil train hung over I-76 and Schuylkill River in central Philadelphia for over a week. Besides the threat of a derailment, the off-gassing of oil trains’ contents occurs both when a train is full and sealed and when it is left open in the Yard after unloading—an “empty” oil train car often holds significant quantities of residual oil and gases. When the trains are moving or idling, their diesel locomotive is running. The most significant pollution from these sources are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), particulate matter, and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), which can lead to smog formation and impact human health, including causing cancer and causing or worsening respiratory and cardiac illnesses. Crude oil train traffic has slowed locally due to several factors, but the North Yard terminal is still in use.
The North Yard also has a propane/propylene rail and truck terminal, with 16 rail car stations and a storage capacity of 15,000 barrels. To regulate the pressure of PES’s propane loading rack, PES operates a propane gas flare about a half-mile south of the baseball field and visible in some photographs from the field. Flares are used in many oil and gas operations to burn off excess fuels instead of releasing them directly into the atmosphere or risking a dangerous imbalance of pressure in the system. For example, if a refinery has an emergency shutdown, they will often divert some of the fuels running through their system to a flare rather than have them build up at a dead-end in the system. A pilot light is always running so that the flare is ready to burn off any fuel sent to it. Philadelphia’s regulatory agency for air pollution has repeatedly issued Notices of Violation related to the PES North Yard flare, usually for not maintaining a lit pilot light. When a pilot light is unlit, any gases sent to the flare vent directly to the atmosphere, and there is no controlled ignition source in the event of a leak or unbalanced pressure. Even when flaring is done correctly, it emits air pollution, including VOCs and NOx.
Except for the studies of lead contamination, there does not seem to be research or documented interest in the potential health impacts of the proximity of this infrastructure to the young players at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions ball field. Ultimately, the residents of the communities around the refinery are at a comparatively far greater risk. Unlike most of the teenage players at Philadelphia Energy Solutions field, residents’ exposure to the pollution and risk from the area’s petrochemical infrastructure can extend from lifetimes to generations, and is frequently compounded by poverty.
The Philadelphia Energy Solutions ball field’s situation is more notable for its symbolism. Depending on your perspective, the Metallurgical Products Co.’s transformation into a manicured ball field is either innovative or prophetic. Along the Schuylkill River nearby, former industrial sites are being transformed into public greenspace and lower-impact business facilities, such as the Grays Ferry Crescent Trail and new Pennovation Center. There is even discussion of transforming some of Philadelphia Energy Solutions into greenspace if the refinery doesn’t recover from its current financial distress. However, in the River Wards, families are experiencing the risks of reintroducing everyday life into heavily contaminated land. Whether in trying to replace its lost manufacturing jobs or in children being poisoned by decades-old lead, Philadelphia’s industrial past is always just below the surface.
Jack Grauer provided additional research assistance for this article.