Skip to content

“Air Monitors Routinely Miss Pollution – Even Refinery Explosions”

Standard methods of monitoring air pollution are missing major pollution incidents.

“When explosions ripped through a Philadelphia oil refinery last year, the shock waves knocked Felicia Menna’s front door frame out of place. Then came the black smoke.

“My throat was closing shut,” recalled Menna, who lives about a mile away. “My nostrils felt like they were on fire.”

She went to an emergency room, where doctors put her on a vaporizer device to ease her breathing and treated her with intravenous Benadryl for allergic reactions, according to medical records she provided to Reuters. She was among several dozen people who sought treatment after the blast, according to a neighborhood group that tracked affected residents.

One of the explosions was so large that a National Weather Service satellite captured images of the fireball from space. Refinery owner Philadelphia Energy Solutions later told regulators that the blasts released nearly 700,000 pounds of hazardous chemicals, including butane, and about 3,200 pounds of hydrofluoric acid, which can cause fatal lung injury in high concentrations. The incident remains under investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Yet the federal air quality index (AQI) score for south Philadelphia showed that day as one of the year’s cleanest, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The score was based on readings from part of the federal network of air quality monitoring devices, which are operated by the city of Philadelphia with oversight from state regulators and the EPA. None recorded any significant pollution.”

Tim McLaughlin, Laila Kearney, and Laura Sanicola report for Reuters December 1, 2020.