The Mask (n.); To Mask (v.)

By Grace Boroughs & Alex Imbot

There’s the cruel lie that we suffer for, and the public must not know.So, we go through life with a ghastly mask, and we’re doing fairly well, While they break our hearts, oh, they kill our hearts! do the things we must not tell.  (Henry Lawson, 1910)

In Philadelphia, crises of environmental justice, climate, and coronavirus are colliding, begging the question: What can we distance ourselves from? Mitigating the risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19 has become the precursor and paramount challenge to daily life in 2020. It is simply too dangerous to one’s health and that of society to inhale and exhale freely in public.

With all of us wearing masks, voluntarily, or involuntarily, the role of these simple devices and their ability to protect us from omnipresent airborne hazards has come to question. Often overlooked in conversations around the novel coronavirus pandemic is the word mask in its verb form. In many cases, the two forms cannot be separated.

Philadelphia was home to the world’s oldest continually operating oil refinery and largest point source of air pollution. Thousands of its residents live, and have been living, along its “fenceline”. For over a century, Philadelphians have been breathing its unfiltered, largely unmeasured, and extremely toxic air emissions.

An appropriate time for a mask mandate in Philadelphia would have been when Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery erupted on June 21st, 2019. The explosion leaked an unpublished amount of deadly chemicals for over three months.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery fire involved hydrofluoric acid equipment. 
(Credit: Stringer/Reuters/Newscom)

Mask mandates in this case would not be the only appropriate action for the city or PES to enforce. However, there was no action plan, alarm, fire drill, shelter in place or evacuation—just a stunned city. The Grays Ferry community could have worn masks to protect themselves from the refinery’s toxic fumes. Yet, with masked data on the toxins in the air, how are these neighbors to the refinery supposed to know their risks? Do they not have the same protections under the CAA?

Polluters hide the extent and consequences of their emissions—though they were out of ordinance of the Clean Air Act for consecutive years. This masking of air quality data and the illegibility of toxic reports have left this community to use their own senses and traumatic experiences to uncover the environmental harm.

Though the refining complex was recently bought by HILCO, a Chicago based development firm, the community does not feel at ease about their air quality. Hilco Redevelopment Partners’ plans include land remediation and warehouse construction the community is not sitting back and trusting that it is safe to inhale.

Through this COVID summer, PPEH has begun its pilot air quality community monitoring project. With two operating low-cost PurpleAir pollution sensors and plans for eight more monitors to be installed in Grays Ferry and other neighborhoods in Philly. This project in coordination with our community partners at Residents Action Committee 2 is aiming to empower community members to damask the concerns about air quality. Though these air quality monitors only measure particulate matter of 2.5 µm, the sensors are a first step in the fight for clean air in this community. We currently have two monitors installed: one in Grays Ferry and the other in Northern Liberties as a benchmark. You can keep watch of Philadelphia’s air sensor network through this public link.

Though many believe and have reported air quality and the organic environment as being healed by the COVID-19, twice in the last week of July, acquaintances informed us that they received a poor air quality warning for the city of Philadelphia. In both cases, the Philadelphia residents reading the information and were confused and unaware as to how they received these alerts—relieved that they had taken up mask wearing outdoors.

So, when Trump says “We want our country back. We’re not going to be wearing masks forever,” it is appropriate to wonder what injustices will continue to be masked when we are no longer?

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