City Says Not to Be Concerned About the Weather-Related “Odor” at PES Refinery

Officials sent out an alert this week regarding fumes near the refinery, where shutdown procedures are underway after a series of massive explosions last month.

pes philadelphia energy solutions odor

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery Complex | AP Photo/Matt Rourke

People living or driving near the soon-to-shutter Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery Complex in South Philadelphia may have noticed a strange smell in the air this week.

On Wednesday, the city sent out an alert to community members warning of “an odor” in the area surrounding the oil refinery complex, which, after experiencing a series of massive explosions that rocked the city last month, recently announced that it would soon close for good.

“As the shutdown at the PES Refinery complex continues, those in the surrounding area may smell an odor,” the city’s alert read. “Residents should not be alarmed at this time. Air Quality continues to be monitored by the Philadelphia Fire Department HazMat Unit and all tests are negative.”

Cherice Corley, a spokesperson for the refinery complex, told WHYY on Thursday that the odor developed because recent heavy rains and high temperatures shifted the lid of a six million gallon tank containing “gasoline components,” which allowed fumes to emanate.

Refinery workers had placed foam blankets on the roof of the tank in attempt to contain the odor, Corley told the media outlet, but the weather had complicated its efforts. PES officials had reportedly planned to transfer the tank’s contents to another vessel by the end of the day Thursday. Corley did not immediately return a request for comment on the status of the transfer.

Shutdown procedures at the refinery complex, the oldest and largest on the East Coast, are currently underway. The Philadelphia Fire Department’s Hazmat Unit is conducting on-site monitoring for chemical releases as the process continues. The Health Department’s Air Management Services Unit is also continuing to monitor the area for air pollution 24/7. Neither organization had found abnormal levels associated with the alert, Matheson said on Thursday. Corley told WHYY that the refinery is also measuring volatile organic compounds in the air around the refinery and, likewise, hasn’t recorded abnormal levels of air pollution.

Alexa Ross, a spokesperson for environmental and community advocacy group Philly Thrive, said the organization has asked several members who live near the refinery if they detected an unusual odor this week. None of the people she spoke with noticed anything, she said.

“Of the five Philly Thrive members who live in Grays Ferry, people were either in houses with their air conditioning on and windows up, or people who were outside weren’t smelling anything,” Ross said.

Ross said Philly Thrive would like to poll a “bigger sample size,” though, and members plan to speak with residents at a neighborhood reunion on Saturday. But Ross said many neighbors frequently report that odors are “unfortunately just run of the mill” near the refinery.

“Even though there’s more awareness [regarding the refinery complex] around the city right now — more attention on the alarming fact that there would be a smell — people [nearby] are kind of used to that as a fact of their daily experience,” Ross said. “It just smells kind of regularly.”

PES announced that it would close on June 26th, days after multiple massive explosions shook the city and sent huge fireballs into the sky. Flames at the complex burned for more than a day, and the facility, which had already been struggling financially, suffered substantial damage, according to officials.

Officials say mostly propane and butane burned in the fire. The city has maintained that the incident did not pose a threat to the health of the surrounding community, where some residents have protested PES for years.

PES was formed in 2012 as a result of a partnership between Sunoco and private equity company the Carlyle Group. It has faced significant financial struggles and debt in recent years — the entity declared bankruptcy in January 2018, emerging later in the year.

PES CEO Mark Smith said last month that he aims to “position the refinery complex for a sale and restart.”