© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

EPA Records Show Benzene From Refineries Leaking Into Minority Neighborhoods

Tom Pelton

Charlie Reeves grew up in public housing in South Philadelphia near the oldest and largest oil refinery on the East Coast.

“I grew up in the projects called the Tasker Homes,” said Reeves, 62, a community activist in Philadelphia’s Tasker-Morris neighborhood. “So I remember the Sunoco refinery from a young age.  We have a high school right around the corner from it, and an elementary school directly across the highway  from it.  There was a bridge there, and we used to go across that bridge onto the refinery grounds. We’d play over there, just have fun. We were young. We didn’t know.”

What they didn’t know was that – during more than a century of operation -- the Point Breeze Refinery, which was later called the Sunoco refinery and then Philadelphia Energy Solutions – spilled so much gasoline and other petroleum products onto the ground that a plume of cancer-causing benzene had contaminated the soil and groundwater, according to EPA records. From that tainted soil, and from leaky storage tanks, benzene fumes wafted into the air.


The closure of the refinery – which had been churning away on the banks of the Schuylkill River since the 1860’s – came in 2019.  Just after 4 am on June 21, 2019, a fire and explosion at the refinery sent a massive fireball into the sky and rattled windows for miles around.

“You could look out the window and see the fire coming out,” said Reeves.  “You could see a mushroom cloud.”

To Charlie Reeves, the most devastating fact was what he learned six months later. NBC news and Greenwire, working with EPA data compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project, revealed on January 26th, 2020, that air pollution monitors ringing the refinery had registered benzene at the plant’s fence lines at concentrations averaging more than five times federal limit (the EPA’s “action level” for benzene) for an entire year.

That meant that local residents like the Reeves family could have been exposed to excessive cancer risks for a long time – including months after the explosion, and potentially months or even years before the fire. 

Charlie Reeves suspects that decades of exposure to benzene may have taken a toll on his personal health, and on many people in his family and neighborhood.

“I have cancer – I have prostate cancer,” Reeves said.  “My wife’s mother. Her best friends. All our old people died of cancer.  My mother died of cancer, just recently. I miss my mother.”

Peter DeCarlo is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University and atmospheric chemist who  studied air pollution from the Philadelphia refinery site for about five years. He said it is almost impossible to link any one case of cancer – such as Charlie Reeves’ -- to a particular airborne pollutant. But he added that it is very likely that – over generations – the residents of southwest Philadelphia suffered higher rates of cancer and other diseases -- and many probably died -- because of the chronic benzene exposure there.

“The health costs from over a century of refining operations at the site are probably incalculable at this point,” said DeCarlo.  “The integrated cost to communities in that area are astronomical.”

The refinery site in Philadelphia, however, is not unique.  A review of EPA records shows that there are 13 oil refineries across the country – including in Texas and Louisiana -- releasing benzene into nearby neighborhoods above the federal limit. Most of them are surrounded by communities, like Philadelphia, where the people living nearby are disproportionately poor or minority.

That’s evidence that environmental injustice has become another national pandemic.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.  The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Pelton's.  You can contact him at [email protected].

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.