Midvale Station. (Photo credit: Google Photos | Andrew Thomas)

Last Thursday, July 27, 2023, Philadelphia’s Department of Health’s Air Management Services (AMS) and SEPTA held a virtual public hearing about new permits for operating their SEPTA Roberts Complex gas and heating plant in Nicetown.

Most of the public hearing included testimonies from residents and organizers questioning the safety of the gas plant’s emissions and denouncing the new permit renewal. 

“I’m shocked that AMS and SEPTA are still repeating the misguided refrain that the Combined Heat and Power Plant (CHP) reduces greenhouse gasses regionally by 41%,” said Lynn Robinson. Robinson lives almost a mile from the plant and is one of the main organizers for Neighbors Against the Gas Plant (NAGP). 

Robinson continued her rebuke, stating that neighbors and organizers never accepted this claim, that the United States Environmental Protective Agency (US EPA) did not stand by this statement, and that even Mayor Kenney stopped saying this. She also stated that SEPTA continued to say that toxic emissions would be undetectable at the plant’s fence line, and neighbors refuted this. 

In the last two and a half years, neighbors who live near the plant have lived experiences that go against this, said Robinson, and she has noticed a decline in air quality in Southwest Germantown, where she lives, and Nicetown. She stated that poor air days used to be a problem in hot weather, but now they happen in colder weather too. 

Many organizers who spoke offered recommendations and solutions to how the plant can operate at an intentional and sustainable level, especially around air quality issues, or stop functioning.

“SEPTA definitely does or would be able to add the technology to monitor the air quality around the city daily because we do it at our school,” said Musa Wilson. Wilson is a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Ambassador and student at Imhotep Charter School in Germantown. 

Wilson said they monitor the air quality in their school’s hallways and gym. He says: “If we can do it, then SEPTA can do it too.”

Another Imhotep Charter School student and STEM Ambassador, Jeremiah White, noted that air quality issues affect the Black community disproportionately. Nicetown-Tioga is over 75% Black and, according to Census reporting, had one of the most significant drops in the city in median household income.

According to the Center on Society and Health, multiple factors influence health and life expectancy based on zip code. Income and Education is one, while proximity to highway, factories, or other industrial plants is another, saying that “toxic agents [coming from plants] may expose residents to pollutants.”

“I’m here advocating for the Black community and for the youth in the Black community as well. We go through a lot of health crises that a lot of other races don’t go through … and I want to see that change. This one meeting can start a whole movement and change much more than we can know,” said White.

Testimonies included adding continuous emissions monitoring year round, not just in ozone season, making emissions data more accessible and open to the public, and having regular performance stack tests (tests that monitor specific pollutants being emitted). Folks also suggested planting trees all around the plant for natural air cleaning.

Programs like the PHS Tree Tenders acknowledge the use of trees as a powerful way to enhance health, working with volunteers to plant them around the city, including Germantown.

Hope Feldman is a neighbor and a family nurse practitioner at Abbottsford Falls Family Practice and Counseling near the gas plant. She testified when the plant was originally being proposed and again last week. She says the lack of transparency about the gas plant is concerning. 

“I see people in our community affected by it. It didn’t seem to have community involvement,” Feldman said. “I work at a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC). We have really high rates of asthma and cancer burden, and our mamas are struggling with low birthweight babies and pregnancy outcomes; and you want to put this in our neighborhood? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Director of AMS, Dr. Kassahun Sellassie, presented a slideshow at the beginning of the meeting, providing their most recent air quality data in Nicetown from their mobile monitoring system. SEPTA representative David Montvydas also said that the Roberts Complex CHP is a small gas and heating system that helps SEPTA use natural gas instead of power from the grid that uses less clean sources like coal.

While there are no other meetings scheduled for the near future, residents can provide written testimony on the permit renewal until August 31, 2023, by emailing: DPHAMS_Service_Requests@Phila.Gov Include “SEPTA Roberts Complex” in the subject line.