All posts by Nathalie Christian

Life after refineries: South Philly shows us a way

By Nathalie Christian, October 18, 2023

Refinery towns like Benicia have a lot to consider in the years ahead as we as a global society take bigger and more aggressive steps toward phasing-down – and phasing-out – fossil fuels, but the most pressing questions boil down to one central, throbbing toothache: what comes after?

What comes after refineries, especially for refinery towns?

You’ve probably seen a lot of gloomy speculation, opportunistically amplified by special-interest groups with the most to lose (we’re looking at you, Big Oil lobbyists!), but peer closer, deeper, and you will see there is plenty of room for optimism.

NBC10-Philadelphia recently broadcasted a report by anchor Karen Hua that described the city’s vision for the future of a space once blighted by a powerful polluter, a refinery operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) that exploded in 2019, launching thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into Philly’s air after years of rampant emissions violations.

While the refinery that had been there before employed 1,000 workers, the new business center that is featured to take its place is slated to create 28,000 union construction jobs before settling down to a projected 19,000 new, permanent jobs for Philadelphia residents.

While tempting, comparing those 28,000 temporary and 19,000 permanent jobs to the 1,000 jobs provided by the demolished plant, dusting our hands off, and announcing, “Well, that’s settled!” is wrongheaded along the lines of apples-and-oranges math. That comparison, while heartwarming, just doesn’t show the whole picture.

Job growth and tax base expansion are certainly fabulous goals, but they do not together contrive the most important lens we need to view South Philly’s transition away from a refinery operation as its primary taxable industry.

Instead, we should view South Philly’s transition through a wider lens, one that demonstrates exciting dividends for a city that was forced to address the big question of ‘what comes after?’ years before it thought it was ready to do so: substantially reduced air pollution and greatly diminished threat of human and environmental harm, in support of a safer, healthier and more economically prosperous – and economically diverse, meaning beholden to no single industry or business for its growth and sustenance – community. (That’s the hope I have for Philly, anyway.)

Sure, a giant industrial logistics complex like that which is being built in South Philly is unlikely to appeal to Benicians as we look to our shared future after refineries, whether that future is 10 or 100 years ahead of us.

But the message of hope remains. There are many opportunities for a post-refinery town in a post-refinery world. Rather than clutching our weathered pearls in fear of losing the patronage of a corporate overlord with dubious motives, Benicia officials and residents could embrace the future and start diving for new pearls, to strand onto new necklaces that will certainly make much better heirlooms for our kids than what we have now.

Despite the doom-and-gloom forecasts perpetuated by naysayers who are deeply invested in delaying the inevitable phase-down or -out of the fossil fuels industry, there is always room for optimism in towns and communities like Benicia.

Check out the video below to learn more, and we’ve provided a transcript for you below if you prefer reading.

P.S. By the way, PES, the company that operated the South Philly plant that exploded in 2019, apparently avoided clean air compliance and paying Philadelphia and Pennsylvania millions in back taxes through strategic bankruptcy proceedings. And of course, the ground the new center will be built on is still riddled with dangerous toxins.

Here’s a transcript of the broadcast:

NBC10 PHIL.: Thirteen-hundred acres of South Philly that was once an oil refinery is being completely transformed and that could make way for new businesses. It’s a project that will also create nearly 50,000 jobs. NBC 10’s Karen Hua joins us from the Bellwether District with a look at how the oil refinery that caught fire several years ago is now getting a new start. 

At approximately 4 am on Friday June 21, 2019, there was a release of vapor in the PES refinery alkylation unit. The vapor found an ignition source, causing a fire and multiple explosions. | Image: US Chemical Safety Board.

NBC10 / KAREN HUA: This groundbreaking means a clean slate. These 1,300 acres sits under the Passyank Ave. Bridge in South Philly. The Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery was here for decades, until June 2019, when the whole facility caught fire, something nearby residences long feared would happen. 

Officials ultimately demolished the oil refinery leaving this space vacant, but now this land is being transformed.

SEN. ANTHONY WILLIAMS (D-PA): As long as I’ve lived, this site has been the number-one polluter of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the East Coast. It is now no longer the number-one polluter, but it has actually reduced emissions.

NBC10 / HUA: Reducing Philly’s emissions by 16%, and it’s a project to create 19,000 permanent jobs and nearly 28,000 union construction jobs.

PHIL. CITY COUNCILMAN KENYATTA JOHNSON: So this is a project that will allow us to erase the stigma of being the number-one big city filled with poverty, to be the number-one city that’s filled with economic growth and development. 

NBC10/ HUA: With thousands of people employed, the hope is this will organically solve one of the root causes of violence.

PHIL. MAYOR JIM KENNEY (D):  What it means is public safety. It means a young man or woman can earn $60, 70, 80,000 to be able to raise their families, sustain their families, have some dignity in their lives, and don’t ever have to pick up a gun for any reason whatsoever again. 

NBC10/HUA: The goal is also to attract businesses and e-commerce to Philly.

PA GOV. JOSH SHAPIRO (D): Think about the uniqueness of the location, connected to downtown, our universities, Philadelphia International Airport, and just a couple-hours’ drive from 25% of the American population.

For companies that want to get their products to market, I can’t think of a better place to be then right here at the Bellweather district.

Learn more about the Philly Bellwether District’s new complex here.

Developing story – Trump charged in Georgia 2020 election probe, his fourth indictment

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: Check out the full indictment here.]

Fulton County Judge Robert McBurney hands back indictment papers from a grand jury after reviewing the pages on Wednesday. | Joshua Lott / The Washington Post.

The Washington Post, by Holly Bailey and Amy Gardner, August 14, 2023

ATLANTA — Former president Donald Trump and 18 others were criminally charged in Georgia on Monday in connection with efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the state, according to an indictment made public late Monday night.

Trump was charged with 13 counts, including violating the state’s racketeering act, soliciting a public officer to violate their oath, conspiring to impersonate a public officer, conspiring to commit forgery in the first degree and conspiring to file false documents.

The historic indictment, the latest to implicate the former president, follows a 2½-year investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D). The probe was launched after audio leaked from a January 2021 phone call during which Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to question the validity of thousands of ballots, especially in the heavily Democratic Atlanta area, and said he wanted to “find” the votes to erase his 2020 loss in the state.

Willis’s investigation quickly expanded to other alleged efforts by him or his supporters, including trying to thwart the electoral college process, harassing election workers, spreading false information about the voting process in Georgia and compromising election equipment in a rural county. Trump has long decried the Georgia investigation as a “political witch hunt,” defending his calls to Raffensperger and others as “perfect.”

Among those named in the 98-page indictment, charged under Georgia’s anti-racketeering law, are Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who served as Trump’s personal attorney after the election; Trump’s former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows; and several Trump advisers, including attorneys John Eastman and Kenneth Chesebro, architects of a scheme to create slates of alternate Trump electors.

Also indicted were two Georgia-based lawyers advocating on Trump’s behalf, Ray S. Smith II, and Robert Cheeley; a senior campaign adviser, Mike Roman, who helped plan the elector meeting; and two prominent Georgia Republicans who served as electors: former GOP chairman David Shafer and former GOP finance chairman Shawn Still.

Several lesser known players who participated in efforts to reverse Trump’s defeat in Georgia were also indicted, including three people accused of harassing Fulton County election worker Ruby Freeman. They are Stephen Cliffgard Lee, Harrison Floyd and Trevian Kutti. The latter is a former publicist for R. Kelly and associate of Kanye West.

A final group of individuals charged in the indictment allegedly participated in an effort to steal election-equipment data in rural Coffee County, Ga. They are former Coffee County elections supervisor Misty Hampton, former Coffee County GOP chair Cathy Latham and Georgia businessman Scott Hall.

Trump was indicted in Washington, D.C., earlier this month in a separate Justice Department probe into his various attempts to keep his grip on power during the chaotic aftermath of his 2020 defeat. Some aspects of that four-count federal case, led by special counsel Jack Smith, overlaps with Willis’s sprawling probe, which accuses Trump and his associates of a broad, criminal enterprise to reverse Joe Biden’s election victory in Georgia.

But the Fulton County indictment, issued by a grand jury and made public Monday night, is far more encompassing and detailed than Smith’s ongoing federal investigation.

Prosecutors brought charges around five separate subject areas, including false statements by Trump allies, including Giuliani, to the Georgia legislature; the breach of voting data in Coffee County, Ga.; calls Trump made to state officials including Raffensperger seeking to overturn Biden’s victory; the harassment of election workers and the creation of a slate of alternate electors to undermine the legitimate vote. Those charged in the case were implicated in certain parts of what prosecutors presented as a larger conspiracy to undermine the election

Willis had signaled for months that she planned to use Georgia’s expansive anti-racketeering statutes that allow prosecutors not only to charge in-state wrongdoing but to use activities in other states to prove criminal intent in Georgia. Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute is one of the most expansive in the country and is broader than federal law in how prosecutors can define a criminal enterprise or conspiracy.

In January 2022, Willis requested an unusual special purpose grand jury be convened to continue the probe, citing the reluctance of witnesses who would not speak to prosecutors without a subpoena. The investigative body of 23 jurors and three alternates picked from a pool of residents from Atlanta and its suburbs was given full subpoena power for documents and the ability to call witnesses — though it could not issue indictments, only recommendations in the case.

Over roughly eight months, the panel heard from 75 witnesses — including key Trump advisers including Giuliani, Meadows and U.S. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who waged a failed legal battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to block his subpoena before ultimately testifying.

The panel also heard from several key witnesses in the investigation, including Raffensperger and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who were on the other end of aggressive lobbying efforts by Trump and his associates to overturn Trump’s loss in the state.

In January, the special grand jury concluded its work and issued a final report on its investigation, which was largely kept under seal by the judge who oversaw the panel.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney cited “due process” concerns for “potential future defendants” as Willis considered charges in the case. But in February, McBurney released a five-page excerpt of the report — including a section in which the panel concluded that some witnesses may have lied under oath during their testimony and recommended that charges be filed.

The panel’s forewoman later confirmed that the special grand jury had recommended multiple indictments — though she declined to say of who.

Trump’s attorneys later sought to disqualify Willis and her office from the case — citing Willis’s public comments about the investigation — and quash the final report and any evidence gathered by the special purpose grand jury. The motions were rejected by McBurney and the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled that Trump had no legal standing to stop an investigation before charges were filed.

In the spring, amid security concerns, Willis took the unusual step of telling law enforcement that she planned to announce her charging decision in August. Because the special grand jury could not issue indictments, prosecutors presented their case to a regular grand jury sworn in last month, which began hearing the case Monday.

Trump’s attorneys are likely to immediately seek to have the case thrown out, reviving their complaints about Willis and the use of a special grand jury in the case.

Trump has intensified his attacks on Willis and other prosecutors examining his activities, describing them as “vicious, horrible people” and “mentally sick.” Trump has referred to Willis, who is Black, as the “racist DA from Atlanta.” His 2024 campaign included her in a recent video attacking prosecutors investigating Trump. Willis has generally declined to respond directly to Trump’s attacks, but in a rare exception, she said in an email last week sent to the entire district attorney’s office that Trump’s ad contained “derogatory and false information about me” and ordered her employees to ignore it.

“You may not comment in any way on the ad or any of the negativity that may be expressed against me, your colleagues, this office in coming days, weeks or months,” Willis wrote in the email, obtained by The Washington Post. “We have no personal feelings against those we investigate or prosecute and we should not express any. This is business, it will never be personal.”

Still, Willis has repeatedly raised concerns about security as her investigation has progressed, citing Trump’s “alarming” rhetoric and the racist threats she and her staff have received. Willis is often accompanied by armed guards at public appearances, and security at her office and her residence was increased even more in recent days ahead of the expected charging announcement, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive security matters.

This story is developing. It will be updated.

Judge rules in favor of Montana youths in landmark climate decision

Sariel Sandoval, member of the Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’Oreille, and Diné Tribes, poses for a portrait in Berkeley, Ca. on Friday, July 28, 2023. Sandoval is one of 16 youth plaintiffs suing the state of Montana over its contributions to climate change. | Amy Osborne / The Washington Post.

The Washington Post, by Kate Selig, August 14, 2023

In the first ruling of its kind nationwide, a Montana state court decided Monday in favor of young people who alleged the state violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels.

The court determined that a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act has harmed the state’s environment and the young plaintiffs, by preventing Montana from considering the climate impacts of energy projects. The provision is accordingly unconstitutional, the court said.

The win, experts say, could energize the environmental movement and reshape climate litigation across the country, ushering in a wave of cases aimed at advancing action on climate change.

“People around the world are watching this case,” said Michael Gerrard, the founder of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The ruling represents a rare victory for climate activists who have tried to use the courts to push back against government policies and industrial activities they say are harming the planet. In this case, it involved 16 young Montanans, ranging in age from 5 to 22, who brought the nation’s first constitutional and first youth-led climate lawsuit to go to trial.

Though the cumulative number of climate cases around the world has more than doubled in the last five years, youth-led lawsuits in the United States have faced an uphill battle. Already, at least 14 of these cases have been dismissed, according to a July report from the United Nations Environment Program and the Sabin Center. The report said about three-quarters of the approximately 2,200 ongoing or concluded cases were filed before courts in the United States.

Experts said the Montana youth had an advantage in the state’s constitution, which guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

Coal is critical to the state’s economy, and Montana is home to the largest recoverable coal reserves in the country. The plaintiff’s attorneys say the state has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project.

Across five days of emotional testimony in June, the youths made claims about injuries they have suffered as a result of climate change. A 15-year-old with asthma described himself as “a prisoner in my own home” when isolating with covid during a period of intense wildfire smoke. Rikki Held, the 22-year-old plaintiff for whom the lawsuit is named, detailed how extreme weather has hurt her family’s ranch.

Held testified that a favorable judgment would make her more hopeful for the future. “I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana has to take responsibility for our part in that,” she said.

Attorneys for the state countered that Montana’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is small. If the law in question were altered or overturned, Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said, there would be “no meaningful impact or appreciable effect” on the climate.

The state began and rested its defense on the same day, bringing the trial to an unexpectedly early close on June 20. In a pivot from its expected defense disputing the climate science behind the plaintiffs’ case, the state focused instead on arguing that the legislature should weigh in on the contested law, not the judiciary. Russell derided the case in his closing statement as a “week-long airing of political grievances that properly belong in the Legislature, not a court of law.”

Gerrard said the change in strategy came as a surprise: “Everyone expected them to put on a more vigorous defense,” he said. “And they may have concluded that the underlying science of climate change was so strong that they didn’t want to contest it.”

Though the state is expected to appeal the decision, experts said the favorable verdict for the youths could influence how judges approach similar cases in other states and prompt them to apply “judicial courage” in addressing climate change. The nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, which represents the plaintiffs, has taken legal action on behalf of youths in all 50 states, and has cases pending in four other states.

Juliana v. United States, a 2015 case brought by Our Children’s Trust that drew international attention, is also back on path to trial after facing repeated setbacks. The case took aim at the federal government, alleging that it had violated the 21 youths’ rights to life, liberty and property, as well as failed to protect public trust resources, in taking actions that contribute to climate change.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Phil Gregory said the court’s verdict could empower youth everywhere to take to the courts to secure their futures.

“There are political decisions being made without regard to the best scientific evidence and the effects they will have on our youngest generations,” he said. “This is a monumental decision.”

Benicia mayor says Valero’s latest alleged emissions violations ‘should bother all Benicia residents’

Valero Benicia Refinery. | Scott Morris / Vallejo Sun.

Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, August 10, 2023

BENICIA – The Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced Thursday that it had discovered continued violations at the Valero Benicia refinery during its investigation into years of toxic releases.

Specifically, the air district said that Valero had failed to install required pollution control equipment on eight pressure relief devices,  safety devices that prevent extreme over pressurization that could cause a catastrophic equipment failure. The violations led to 165 tons of illegal emissions, the air district said. [Emph. added by BenIndy contributor.]

The air district said it is seeking an abatement order from its independent hearing board that would require Valero to immediately correct the violations.

“The extensive violations discovered at Valero’s Benicia refinery are of great concern,” air district chief counsel Alexander Crockett said in a statement. “Our priority is to protect the health and well-being of our communities, and we will vigorously pursue enforcement measures to achieve cleaner and safer air for all residents of the Bay Area.”

A Valero spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young said in a statement that Valero’s alleged continued pattern of emissions violations is “particularly concerning” and “should bother all Benicia residents.”

“The City is also waiting, with increasing impatience, to see how the separate, bigger, case of 16 years of unreported hydrogen emissions will be ultimately resolved,” Young said. “The citizens of Benicia deserve much more transparency from the refinery about these operational deficiencies than we have been receiving.”

The air district discovered the violations during its investigation into the release of toxic emissions from a hydrogen vent at the refinery that went on for nearly 20 years. The air district separately obtained an abatement order for those violations last year, though by the time it revealed the excess emissions publicly, it had already worked with Valero to correct them for some time.

Those excess emissions were first detected by Valero in 2003 when it started measuring output from the hydrogen vent, but the air district believes it likely had been going on even earlier and has no measurements from that time.

Since 2003, the air district estimates that the vent was releasing about 4,000 pounds of hydrocarbons per day, far more than state regulations allow. Overall, the district found that Valero released more than 10,000 tons of excess hydrocarbons over 16 years, including 138 tons of toxic air contaminants ethylbenzene, tolyrene, zolerine and the especially carcinogenic benzene.

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