Using Eminent Domain as an Environmental Justice Tool

The case of a big city that refuses to walk the talk on "Clean Energy"

A Philadelphia Citizen’s Feature

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Image result for pes refinery

City and state elected officials keep saying they’re powerless to do anything beyond what they’re already doing — and that’s not much. City Hall, along with relevant regulatory and city public health agencies — despite their much-touted clean energy plans — have shown little interest in exploring or examining the actual cost of that site in terms of the deteriorating health of residents and, potentially, the lives lost over generations as a result. PhillyThrive did conduct a 2017 survey of residents living around the refinery, assessing their health and found nearly 53 percent claimed some form of “… asthma, heart disease, cancer, or another respiratory condition.” But, that was more anecdotal polling sample than the government-sponsored full-blown epidemiological study confirming the direct link.

What we are certain of is that the Mayor, along with City Council and others, are playing an obfuscating game of three card monte. One moving card on the left hand moves erratically as the player deviously grins to suggest they’re completely with you: Don’t worry, says City Hall, we get it, we’re on your side. But the other cards on the right hand moving in blurry circular motions shows us a much different play designed to leave city residents both confused and, literally, sick. 

Mayor and City Council, will not move ambitiously or urgently in that direction, especially given the condensed 10-year timeline toward climate crisis event horizon. It’s unclear why because there is plenty of public support for aggressive action. Neither is the delegation to Harrisburg applying pressure, and just constantly raises its hands in futility while pointing to partisan logjam. Signs of a hotter, stuffier, much more flooded Philly region are already here, along with unhealthy air and water that disproportionately afflicts the area’s least financially fortified.  

If City Hall was really serious about keeping future natural gas production off that site, both Mayor and City Council would have long ago teamed up and used every possible tool at their disposal to make the bankruptcy and bidding process reflect those clean energy values. 

The Mayor can’t reasonably globetrot, sign on to symbolic multi-city climate agreements, shade Trump, and skip across the country showcasing himself as Mr. Jolly Green New Deal when he’s allowing the build-out of methane-blasting natural gas plants in North and Southwest Philly.

That’s what happened a couple of months ago in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, Illinois where small cities teamed up with outraged residents against chemical polluter Sterigenics. The company had been fumigating its facilities with a harmful toxic gas for decades; when residents found out, they became overnight activists forcing the village mayor, sister towns and area state legislators to threaten Sterigenics with all sorts of legal, legislative and regulatory weapons.  The pressure was so intense that, in September, Sterigenics announced it’s leaving. 

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